Call it the kosher meat version of the Boston Tea Party.
A sudden spike in the price of kosher beef in 1902 sparked a protest by thousands of Jewish women on the Lower East Side, who took to the butcher shops and delicatessens to demand affordable meat for their tables. Now comes a new “site-specific” musical by Downtown Art, “The Great Struggle for Cheap Meat,” a folk, rock and jazz-inflected work staged with a cast of teenage girls at outdoor locations throughout the very neighborhood where the landmark boycott occurred.
Downtown Art specializes in musicals about the history of Lower Manhattan. Four years ago, director Ryan Gilliam, along with her husband, composer Michael Hickey, produced “The Waistmaker’s Opera,” about the massive garment worker’s strike that took place just a year before the lethal Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
The kosher meat riots, in which women grabbed pieces of meat from butcher shop counters and set them on fire, attracted widely divergent reactions from the press — the Jewish media hailed the women as heroines while The New York Times deplored them as “dangerous” and “ignorant.” But the boycott, which spread both throughout the city and to other cities on the East Coast, demonstrated the power that poor women could have when they banded together for social justice.
The episode was reminiscent of the Keystone Kops, with the bewildered policemen smacking the rioters’ bottoms with their nightsticks. But Gilliam told The Jewish Week that the stakes — or steaks — were high, given the fact that immigrants put meat up on a pedestal. “The first little piece of the American Dream that immigrant Jews gained was the ability to buy meat,” she said. “They got upset because they saw that slipping away from them.”
Site-specific works, in which audiences follow the performers from one location to another, are nothing new. But Gilliam puts a new twist on the format by having each audience member listen to the score individually on an MP3 player. This means that bystanders, unable to hear the music, often do not pause their conversations or other activity as the lip-syncing performers pivot around them. This gives the hour-long play what Gilliam calls a “ghostly, eerie quality,” a kind of “double exposure” of past and present. As she explains, “It’s strange and mysterious if you’re not plugged into it. We see you, but we’re in our own world. It’s a reminder of how much life — and density of life — took place here.”
“The Great Struggle for Cheap Meat” runs through May 18 at 172 Norfolk St. (between East Houston and Stanton). Performances are on Saturdays at 1 and 4 p.m. For tickets, $12, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.