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Ailing Brooklyn hospital hosts Albee play in effort to stay open


By Melanie Evans
Posted: January 17, 2014 - 8:00 pm ET
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Local artists in New York's borough of Brooklyn are doing what they can to help stave off closure for a local hospital, staging a noted play about medical care in the very halls of the threatened facility.

The crowd that poured into Interfaith Medical Center on a recent mild winter evening were not executives of the bankrupt Brooklyn hospital with the hope of succeeding where prior attempts at drafting a survival plan had failed.

Nor were they patients of the hospital or its employees, who as recently as December were faced with the immediate threat the hospital would close.

Instead, the throng that filed past the reception desk to a large conference room were neighbors and the curious, there for a performance of Edward Albee's “The Death of Bessie Smith,” a one-hour play staged inside the ailing hospital in one of the latest efforts to keep its doors open through public pressure. “Hundreds of thousands of people who rely on Interfaith's medical services will be forced to seek medical care in institutions that may be too far away to reach in an emergency or which may be financially inaccessible to them,” said play bills handed to the audience.

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The choice to stage the play in the hospital was one that the New Brooklyn Theater hoped would spark discussion on health, race, class and power, Jeff Strabone, chairman of the New Brooklyn Theater, which is producing the play, told the audience on a recent evening. Smith, an African-American blues singer, died after a car crash in 1937. Albee's plot centers on the apocryphal tale of her death: She was denied emergency medical care at a hospital for whites following the crash.

The hospital, which entered bankruptcy roughly a year ago saddled with nearly $200 million more in debts than assets, was scheduled to close Jan. 7, but remains open with a last-minute $3.5 million lifeline from the state to fund operations for a month. New York may deliver another cash infusion to keep doors open through early March. Interfaith has hemorrhaged millions on operations since entering bankruptcy court.

Its financial distress and possible closure has sparked public outcry from organized labor and politicians, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio during his campaign. The safety net hospital is in Brooklyn's predominantly African-American Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. One in three residents of the hospital's service area live in poverty, said Interfaith Medical Center's bankruptcy filings.

The play has attracted sold-out crowds and local politicians who have joined cast members to field questions from the audience.

Olga Ligon and her husband, Dezzie, were among the crowd. The couple, who have lived near Interfaith for a decade, relied on the hospital for pediatric emergency care. Their daughter, Clarissa, staged managed the performance. The loss of the hospital will mean another 20 minutes to reach the nearest emergency room, said Olga Ligon, who first became aware the hospital may close about a year ago. “That's how I'm looking at it.”

Neighborhood resident Siim Hanja said he did not learn of the hospital's pending closure until he read about the play, which he recently attended. He said he hopes to see the hospital survive.

Manhattan resident Deidre Sinnott and her husband attended the play in support of the hospital and a friend in the cast. The couple, who live in Greenwich Village, lost their local hospital in April 2010 after St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Centers filed for bankruptcy. The real estate will be developed for luxury condos.

Sinnott called St. Vincent's closure a “great theft” from the community. “I can't stand to see hospitals disappear in New York,” she said. St. Vincent cared for her husband, Charles Petzold, before its closure. “I don't know where the ambulance would take us,” now that it's gone, Petzold said.

Follow Melanie Evans on Twitter: @MHmevans


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