Writer: Stephanie Fleischmann
Music: Christina Campanella
Creators: Stephanie Fleischmann, Christina Campanella, and Mallory Catlett
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
In December of 2016, a white-tailed deer appeared in Harlem’s Jackie Robinson Park. The buck, nicknamed J.R. (for Jackie Robinson) and Lefty (because of his crushed left antler) charmed locals for two weeks before police tranquilized him, calling him a danger to public safety after he jumped a fence into the courtyard of a public housing complex north of the park. In the days that followed, the city and state of New York squabbled about Lefty’s fate—Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to euthanize the deer, citing poor chances for survival, while Governor Andrew Cuomo offered to help the city relocate the animal. Just as plans for Lefty’s relocation went into action, the deer died, likely as a result of the stress of tranquilization and captivity. HERE Arts Center presents Lefty’s story, woven in with the history of the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem in a sound walk called The Visitation, created by Stephanie Fleischmann, Christina Campanella, and Mallory Catlett.
The Visitation is available through Gesso, a phone app that allows users to access various guided walks in cities worldwide. The Visitation, however, is more than a guided walk. It is an immersive story that engages both the topography and history of Sugar Hill and Jackie Robinson Park. Users start outside the Foodtown near the 145th Street A/C/B/D subway stop and the app guides them to the park, explaining the neighborhood’s connections to Alexander Hamilton, Barnum and Bailey Circus, and the Harlem Renaissance along the way. Upon arrival at the park, the narrator (Christina Campanella) shifts to the deer’s story. Users pause along the walk to listen to songs about Lefty’s journey from the perspectives of different community members voiced by Jude Shimer, Black-Eyed Susan, Callie Katrice Holley, Carl Hancock Rux, Mia Pixley, John-Andrew Morrison, and Abraham Gomez-Delgado.
While The Visitation is not theatre in the strictest sense, it offers listeners a unique immersive meditation. Listeners may access the sound walk whenever they like, so their experience is informed by the weather, the time of week, and the time of day; a user who does the sound walk on a sunny Saturday will likely need to jockey for park bench space and adjust the volume to hear the narrator over the weekend crowd. A listener on a grey day or a mid-morning weekday will have a more solitary experience, and The Visitation is definitely designed to be a solitary pursuit. Christina Campanella’s music and Stephanie Fleischmann’s text imagine the parts of Lefty’s story we cannot know, like how he ended up in a populous area of northern Manhattan or how seeing him affected a New York City teen who had never seen a deer before. Avid walkers should not consider this sound walk a chance to get their steps in; this is a meditative experience that asks listeners to slow down and take in the world around them, something that is still hard for many New Yorkers to do, even after a year of social distancing and remote work.
Although we are starting to see the return of live theatre, solo audio experiences like The Visitation are a welcome addition to HERE’s offerings. They not only remind us to slow down and consider our surroundings, but allow us to enjoy some of the personal space that we have become accustomed to during the pandemic. Lefty’s story is particularly relevant as we start to emerge from pandemic restrictions; it asks us to think carefully about our relationship with nature. This audio walk is an excellent chance to reflect on the lessons about history and conservation that we can carry with us as we emerge from the pandemic.
Open-Ended Run | Photo Credit: Daniel Efram