Off-Broadway Review: ‘The Lady Liberty Theater Festival’ at Urban Stages

New York Theatre Guide Posted By: Jacquelyn Claire on: September 10, 2016

LLTF promo poster June 24

“The Lady Liberty Theater Festival,” presented by Aizzah Fatima and Monica Bauer, comprises three short punchy plays and a song in praise of freedom and against Islamophobia. As I arrived in the theater, the soundtrack was blasting out music with American themes. I got into the mood as Neil Diamond sang, “they’re coming to America.” As a recent immigrant to the shores of the Land of the Free, I felt the need to sing along, quietly.

. . .deeply satisfying. . .

The scene setter was a quirky comedy called “Lady Liberty’s Worst Day Ever,” written by Monica Bauer. Lady Liberty (Frances McGarry) has been summoned to her agent Vinnie’s office (J.Dolan Byrnes), and if she can stay off her cellphone for long enough, he will tell her the shocking news that Trump is about to rebrand her in his image and do away with the Emma Lazarus poem on her pedestal.

Cheryl King directs this comedic sketch, where she crafts a pithy little satirical stab at the “Orange” man who has literally forgotten where he comes from. Byrnes and McGarry charge around the stage with enough energy to set the Lady’s torch on fire. They have great stage chemistry together and seem to really enjoy their volleys of dialogue, served forcefully at each other.

Dolan Byrnes soulfully covered the scene change with a rendition of the Irish traditional folk song “No Irish Need Apply,” beautifully setting the context of bigotry and exclusion through the ages in Manhattan. We segued into the next movement, “No Irish Need Apply,” written by Monica Bauer and directed by Cheryl King. Joan Fitzgerald (Frances McGarry) is a shop owner looking to hire a new employee. Ahmed Famy (Ali Andre Ali), a Shi’ite Muslim, enters to apply for the position. He takes one look at the image of the “Bleeding” Christ on the wall and decides he would not be welcome.

What follows is a very clever job interview which exposes prejudices and cultural assumptions in a refreshing way. Ali is powerful as the defensive and stoic academic. He has a wonderful command and ease on stage, which makes him extremely watchable. McGarry was lovable and charming as the irreverent and open-minded Irish widow. It feels like this sort of situation is happening all over the city on a daily basis, but I am not sure that the outcomes are as congenial and generous as this pleasant oasis.

The final element of the theatrical Lady Liberty hat-trick was “Dirty Paki Lingerie,” brilliantly written and performed by Aizzah Fatima, with direction by Erica Gould. This was more of a standard one-woman show length, so it was deeply satisfying. The other performers had joyfully served up the appetizers and entrees so that we could sink our teeth into this delicious main course. Fatima and her transforming piece of green fabric weave a tale of various Pakistani women living in the U.S. who are torn between cultural expectation and their personal desires. She inhabits mothers, strong independent woman, children, teenagers, and traditional girls who show the diversity of experience of being a woman in their community and in the United States. The six Muslim-American women were drawn from real-life incidents and interviews, which lends a truthfulness to the production that is spellbinding.

Gould has ensured a piece that has flawless transitions between characters and situations, allowing Fatima to excel in birthing this wide range of distinctive female Pakistani dreamers. Fatima is an extraordinary performer with a vocal range that is impressive, and she is enormously funny. This piece will definitely have a long life ahead of it!

“The Lady Liberty Theater Festival” celebrates freedom of speech, the power of artists to defy oppression, and the ability to heal after traumatic life events. On the eve of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11, this festival is a perfect way to honor the past by submerging oneself in the shadow of Lady Liberty to remind ourselves of our glorious freedom.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

Advisory: Adult language makes this production inappropriate for some audiences. Recommended for ages 16 and up.

“The Lady Liberty Theater Festival” plays through September 25, 2016 at Urban Stages in New York City. For more information on this festival, click here.

What is the value of performing arts in society?

  “It’s well and good that arts — and performing arts especially — are part of our society, but they’re not the vital part of our society.” ~Board President Daniel Gomes 
Do you think performing arts are vital to society?
This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington’s blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa or Facebook.com/TheresaHarringtonBANG.

Jan. 16:

Just a little over a week after newly-sworn in Contra Costa County Superintendent Karen Sakata proudly performed with a Taiko drum group at her inauguration ceremony, the president of the county board of education has questioned the value of performing arts in society.

Board President Daniel Gomes angered a crowd of arts advocates at a board meeting earlier this week by suggesting that pursuing the idea of a countywide performing arts charter school might be “wasting money and wasting time — and we might be wasting lives by supporting this.”

This prompted Rob Seitelman, a local teacher and professional actor, to yell back: “That’s how I want to waste my life — by supporting the arts!”

In a long and rambling monologue, Gomes said it would be better to pursue a countywide charter focused on robotics or environmental science than performing arts.

“These are programs that are vital to our survival as a society,” he said. “It’s well and good that arts — and performing arts especially — are part of our society, but they’re not the vital part of our society.”

When the crowd erupted with gasps of disbelief, Gomes said those who disagreed with him could vote against him in the next election.

“But until then,” he said, “you should listen to what I have to say because I listened to what you have to say.”

Many people left after the board unanimously denied the proposed Contra Costa School of Performing Arts, based on staff findings that the petition did not meet state requirements for approval.

But Gomes’ comments set off a larger debate, causing some people to question his characterization of the arts as less important than science. In education, arts have suffered severe cuts and have been considered “extras” by some, in part because of the No Child Left Behind emphasis on math and English language arts, coupled with years of budget cuts.

As the economy has recovered and studies have shown the value of the arts in education, there has been a renaissance of arts in many schools. Even the Contra Costa County Office of Education emphasizes the value of arts alongside Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — known as STEM — by hosting a STEAM Colloquium that integrates the arts into STEM.

And earlier this year, representatives from the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence visited Meadow Homes Elementary in Concord to praise its integration of the arts into its curriculum. John Abodeely, deputy director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, said the arts are a vital part of a well-rounded education and are especially powerful in efforts to engage underperforming students.

“The arts are not something you provide to students when you’ve fixed all the other problems,” he said. “Just like music is not something that’s been a part of humanities after we’ve figured out all of our other problems. It’s been a part of our soul and heart forever. So, the arts are a critical element in reform strategies.”

Outside the county board meeting, performing arts teacher Jason Miller said he disagreed with Gomes.

“Arts education is essential to our society,” he said. “The sentiment expressed tonight (by Gomes) was alarming — the idea that arts education isn’t valuable or that arts students are wasting their lives.”

After my story about the meeting was published, retired arts teacher Suzanne Cerny called to express her dismay about Gomes’ comments.

“How did this guy get to be president (of the board)?” she asked. “Studies show how arts are important. This reminds me of people in power who demean the people whom they are supposed to be helping.”

I also spoke to Richard Asadoorian, a former Contra Costa County trustee who lost his seat in the November election, who said he didn’t believe the arts should be considered as secondary behind other subjects.

“So often, the arts have been cut in schools,” he said. “They’re usually the first to go, along with librarians and counselors.”

Do you think performing arts are vital to society?

Today, Children, We’re Not Going To Do A Show

“This isn’t about a single group of kindergartners, but about our core values for all students – that the arts are not disposable, that they are not frivolous, and that they can in fact prepare students for life.” Howard Sherman, Arts Administrator and Producer
Elwood Letter
Of course, on the face of it, it’s simply the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard. In a letter to the parents of kindergarten students at Harley Avenue Primary School in Elwood, N.Y., the principal and kindergarten teachers wrote: “The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.” The Washington Post seemed to be first on the case, with a story titled, “Kindergarten show canceled so kids can keep studying to become ‘college and career ready.’ Really.” That pretty much set the tone and I jumped into the fray, sharing it online with introductory words including “dumb” and “shame.” I happened to be e-mailing with a producer at CBS News on a personal topic and passed the article along to her, and I tweeted it in the direction of a reporter at The New York Post, knowing how they like to take umbrage at things. I wanted people to see how ridiculous this was, and is. Read more…

Marla Lewis: Grammy Winning Songwriter for Kids, Parents, and Teachers

“I never expected to win a Grammy,” says Wantagh Award-winning singer/songwriter, Marla Lewis. “I just love to write songs that teach, entertain, and sometimes raise a smile. I’m really proud of my work.” 

After 25 years of writing songs for adults and children, Marla’s tune, Leap of Faith, became part of a compilation CD called All About Bullies…Big and Small. The CD won a Grammy for Best Children’s Recording.

Leap of Faith is about a timid little girl named Faith who finds her courage.  On the playground she sees a bully push a small kid down. Before she can even think about being afraid she stands up and says, “Cut that out!/Leave that kid alone right now!” Everybody in the playground stops, stares the bully down, and cheers Faith. The bully turns and walks away.  Everyone is jubilant, and Faith discovers how much inner power she has.

 During the course of her career, Marla taught ESL (English-as-a- Second Language) in New York City schools. She utilized her musical talent to teach lessons across the curricula from grammar, to math, to social studies, science, and literacy skills.  For example, to teach irregular plurals Marla created a chant “One Foot, Two Feet” and added movement to act out each body part.  “The combination of aural, visual, and kinesthetic modalities accommodates children’s varied learning styles,” says Marla.  For a kindergarten math lesson, she has the children sing this ditty:  If you know how to count you can add by one.  “I also use folk songs, for example, Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd,to teach kids about slavery, and how the slaves used the North Star to find their way to freedom.” 

Marla uses many of her songs in her original professional development workshops for teachers. One workshop deals with how music and movement facilitate literacy.  Another workshop teaches collaborative songwriting.  “I wrote one of my favorite songs, We Love to Read, with a second grade class! The kids were very excited about learning to read. They were amazed at how those  ‘squiggles on the page’ became letters. We had a magical time working together!”

“You don’t have to be a musician to do this.  You just have to enjoy the music and . . . know how you’re going to use it to teach the lesson.”  This is what classroom teachers do best and to this day Marla’s music is sought out by education practitioners around the country to integrate her songs into lessons of their own invention.

To produce professional quality recordings meant finding resources:  “Funding in the arts is not easy.  I have recorded two albums for kids and they each cost me about $30,000.  I used all live musicians; I didn’t skimp on anything, but I didn’t exactly use a New York City studio, either.”  With the staunch support of a producer, Bob Stander of Huntington, Marla sold over 3,000 CDs, and won Parent’s Choice Awards for both We All laugh in the Same Language (2005) and  I Love to Talk to Plants (2008). 

Although retired from public school teaching, Marla continues to pursue her art by producing videos at home and uploading them to her YouTube channel.  “The Arts are the most positive aspect of man and womankind . . . if we made a time capsule to show another species in space what we’re about, we’d include our greatest achievements, which are our works of art, scientific discoveries, and speeches made by our greatest leaders.  I honestly don’t understand why drama, music, art, and dance are not valued as much as science, math and social studies.” Further, Marla adds, “The arts empower us and give us the ability to make a difference. “

To find out more about Marla Lewis and her music visit her website  “We all Laugh in the Same Language!”

Olivia Bouler: Taking Flight


Twelve-year-old Olivia first gained fame two years ago when she offered her paintings to people who donated to the National Audubon Society in response to the BP Gulf oil spill. To date, she has created more than 500 paintings and raised more than $200,000 for the Audubon Society. She’s also published a book, lobbied on Capitol Hill for environmental reforms and spoken to school children in different states and countries about her passion for animals.


In August, she was honored for her work at the International Year of Youth Culmination Celebration at the United Nations and personally invited by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama this past December to attend a holiday reception. Over the February winter break Olivia traveled to Costa Ricato study bird wildlife in their natural habitat. Her first gallery show is in the planning stages for this coming season.

And if she had not had the opportunity to pursue the arts, Olivia emphatically exclaimed, “Oh, my God! My life would be over!”  The Arts have not only been the conduit through which she channels her energy and enthusiasm for her causes, but also a respite for coping with her emerging adolescence:  “I’ve seen other kids who don’t have the arts and they turn to the wrong things . . . if they had considered taking [an art class] instead of another class with another grade and another period of the day, it would have saved them.” And it’s not even about being able to draw.  The ability to freely respond to any given moment has transcended to her writing skills.  Praising her English teacher, Olivia can compose two pages to a written prompt within 10 minutes.  Playing the saxophone challenges her to take risks and improvise:  “You just keep on going;  just pick up that pencil and start writing. I can tell you there are brilliant writers [in my class] there are brilliant players, brilliant singers [who will] never be heard because they are so scared of doing a solo because they’re afraid of what people might think; they will just not get up in front of that stage and expose themselves even in a group.”

Besides the arts’ capacity to instill courage for anyone who dares to accept the risk, Olivia is cautious about protecting her personal boundaries.  “Kids, personally, don’t like me in school.  I’m just too different, and bouncy and boisterous.”  Despite composing a song to perform for the school talent show Olivia decided that it was too revealing emotionally and decided to do another selection.  ‘It’s really good, it’s really put together and I may perform it at another event where kids won’t attack me because kids [can be] monstrous.”

It’s this secure sense of self-esteem that the arts have armed Olivia to pursue her dreams.  For as long as she can remember she always wanted to “do something crazy, radical, and kind of awesome with my life.”  Her “epiphany”, if you will, was the moment her parents put a pencil in her hand.  Since picking up that pencil, she has 30,000 people who follow her on Facebook and is more determined than ever to do something really amazing for the arts and the environment:  “We are like birds! We have to sing our song before our time goes out . . . we have to sing our songs NOW before it’s all gone.”  By her example, we can be certain that her message will resonate for all humanity and be realized in our lifetime. “Go birds!”

Contact Olivia on her website and Facebook!