Playwright Cusi Cram: On Researching the St. VINCENT'S PROJECT
By Cusi Cram, playwright of the St. Vincent's Project: Novenas for a Lost Hospital
If you stand on the corner of Bank and Greenwich Avenue and look up at the place where St. Vincent’s once was, inevitably someone will start talking to you about it. Villagers have heated opinions on the subject. So, in discussing the Village and what interested me about it from a storytelling perspective with Rattlestick’s Artistic Director, Daniella Topol, the hospital’s closing seemed like a wound in the neighborhood which had not yet healed. There was a play to be found somewhere in the 161 years of the hospital’s history.
I first wanted to know how the hospital fell apart (not an easy thing to grasp!) In pursuing that question, I read a lot of newspaper articles about the hospital’s closing. Many of the richest articles were in hyper local papers (The Villager and West Side News in particular). I found the accounts of community board meetings in both those papers to be incredibly dramatic and sometimes quite humorous.
I also was drawn to physical and specific details about what the hospital was like during the AIDS crisis. Oral histories from the ACT UP oral history project proved invaluable. As was David France’s book and film, How to Survive a Plague. There were also detailed accounts of the AIDS ward, Spellman 7, in articles in Out and New York Magazines. I also discovered an in-depth article about Dr. Gabriel Torres, a seminal AIDS doctor during the epidemic who wound up in jail, also by France in New York magazine. An echo of Dr. Torres wound up in the play.
And then in my reading I became more and more interested in the Sisters of Charity themselves. I wanted to understand how these women built huge institutions in a time where they didn’t even have the right to vote or own property. I read a remarkable biography of the founder of the order, Elizabeth Seton, called American Saint by Joan Barthel, which was a riveting story of a very unlikely nun, who eventually became the first American saint. All the contradictions in Seton’s character led me to make her the anchor of the play. She could playfully and artfully lead us from one point in time to another. I also read her collected diaries and a history of the hospital written by the sisters called, With a Great Heart. That book lead to thinking about the doctors who worked with the sisters. I discovered the great Dr. Mott, a celebrated 19th century surgeon, in that account and did further research on him and his work with cholera patients in 1849 at the first hospital the sisters built on East 13th street.
I dipped into books on epidemics, cholera, Irish immigration and the famine ships, Catholic history in New York, African-American Catholics, Irish slang, medical history books, books on nun’s habits and the history of novenas, books about dance in the 80’s, a zine inspired by the dancer, John Bernd and many, many images on the Internet of people who died in the hospital and the people who cared for them through time.
Also, any time I told people I was working on this play, they would share a story. Snippets and moments from those stories filtered into the play in unexpected ways. I think also think having lived and written in this neighborhood since 1995 colors the play. I watched the hospital come down and the new buildings go up and the neighborhood change and change. I am moving July 1st.