Harry Belafonte Takes Interfaith to Center Stage, Urges Community to Raise Collective Voice
“Health Care is a Right, Not an Opportunity”
The continuing fight to keep Interfaith Medical Center alive and running received reinforcement… and new armor … when Harry Belafonte led a post-play talk inside the Brooklyn facility on Atlantic Avenue, February 1.
Mr. Belafonte’s visit to the ailing medical center included a viewing of the New Brooklyn Theatre’s presentation of Edward Albee’s 1958 one-act play “The Death of Bessie Smith”, directed by Jonathan Solari. This “opening act” for the Belafonte talk was set in a 1937 segregated hospital in the South, and it touched on the human rights/human dignity themes that have coursed through Mr. Belafonte’s comments to groups and people all over the world over the years.
Belafonte was at home in the doctors’ conference room doubling as a mini-Little Theatre with an audience of 60-odd people in fold-up chairs. Play props – a Victrola, Screenplay Magazine, gooseneck light and even one doctor’s saddle shoes and telephone – were accurate to the historical period. Interfaith’s hospital examination room served as the male dressing room and the lobby substituted as the back stage for the actors.
The theatrical and the medical were so intermeshed that when actual latecomers to the play entered the hospital and saw doctors in “bloodstained gowns” pacing, looking serious and referring to “medical records” (actually script sections) they thought they were witnessing a triage. And in one sense, they were. The production has been billed as a play inside a play, as the day-to-day survival drama unfolding over the past two years with Interfaith and other hospitals facing closing in New York City is a life and death matter to the entire community.
At the end of the play, the audience, along with Mr. Belafonte, was directed to the cafeteria next door where staff members, including nurses, supporters, physicians and community leaders, were waiting. Mr. Belafonte’s discussion of participants included representatives from 1199 SEIU, community advocates, medical doctors and political leaders like Letitia James, New York City’s Public Advocate and NYC Councilman Robert Cornegy, who all have been active and vocal in their mission to thwart the shutdown of Interfaith and other NYC hospitals.
“This effort was designed to bring attention to the plight of Interfaith,” said Claudette Brady, producer. It also illustrated the power of the arts to move people and fuel movements. Something Belafonte knows about, as he has experienced almost every major human and civil rights action on a national and international during, as he said, his “almost 100 years of life”.
The actors’ brought him back to his early career as an actor, he said in the opening remarks of the discussion, moderated by NBT’s Andrea O’Neal and Jeff Strabone. Belafonte performed in small places with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. And like Miss Dee and Mr. Davis, Belafonte used his art to impact the community, raising his voice on issues that affected them unfairly. In churches, apartments, rooms, he said, “our communities gave us the platforms”, comparing the theater production with his early theatre work. “They planted the seeds for us and gave us a wonderful harvest.”
And so Belafonte segued into the problems at Interfaith and how they relate to larger world scenes. He revealed how he was appalled at the lack of consideration and concern for the health needs of the community and the community’s uphill battle to demand “a right”.
He applauded the actions of the community in keeping the struggle alive in an oblique comparison of these warriors to people who “step into the fray”. “Give me a Robeson, a Roosevelt, give me the people in the trenches; they are a validation of all people.”
He called for the grass roots to stand and to raise their voices; he called for the activation of the American promise to the people to embrace and improve the lives of the most vulnerable, the tired and the poor.
. He talked about the new “changing” of Brooklyn and how all of the people must become part of it. “But you can’t change and leave the people behind.” He spoke of his admiration for 1199, a mainstay for workers for decades, reminding his audience of how from small groups and small tasks big movements are built. He reminded how 1199 consisted of several hundred mostly Euro workers. “Now it’s well over 400,000 voices … the largest local in the U.S., deeply committed to health care.”
He declared that change can happen if we all work together, reflecting on global connections and common ties that bind us together.
In the audience was Ramon Rodriguez, who identified himself as a worker at Wyckoff Hospital, where he happens to hold the title of President and CEO. “Change can happen if we work together,” he agreed, “and go up to Albany with a plan. If my child were living in Bed-Stuy, he would have to travel to another neighborhood to get the services he can get right here at this hospital.
And in the plan, noted Belafonte, should be strategies for a new way of doing things: of working, human relation… and the humanitarian to be at the core of every worker… correct … another struggle; it’s about choices, the freedom to choose. “It’s about class, “he said, “equality as well as health care. It’s about choices, and the freedom to choose.” And it’s about everyone being humanitarian to the core, he noted.
“When a hospital closes, people die. Education and health care are rights. We can’t view them as opportunities. To be purchased.” And he admonished that the word “quality” must be added to education and, by extension, health care.
One bystander earlier in the evening remarked that this community’s effort to save its hospital could be its “Rosa Parks” moment. “It’s not just a hospital concern, it’s a justice concern.”
Underlying all of this may be this message: center stage must move to where the people are, or the people must demand and take center stage. (Bernice Elizabeth Green)
For Interfaith Medical Center current news and updates, see Stephen Witt’s story on Page 4