From left to right: Rafael Ramos, Eddie Padilla, Jose Apache Rivera and Marco Ayuso. Lucy Gellman Photos.
Emma Luisa came to the New Haven Green to get her Covid-19 vaccine. She stayed for over an hour of tap, music, drumming, and poetry that made her feel more at home—and sent her into the weekend dancing.
Friday afternoon, Luisa was one of dozens of New Haveners to come across a pop-up on the New Haven Green meant to make the corner at Church and Chapel sing. As temperatures rose past the 90-degree mark, people stayed to watch dancer Alexis Robbins with musicians Cliff Schloss and Dylan McDonnell, drummers from Bregamos Community Theater, and poet Shea Reeves perform. The weekly series is now looking for artists to perform through October.
The series, which runs Fridays through October 8, is a collaboration among the private, ever-elusive Proprietors of the New Haven Green, the New Haven Department of Park & Trees, the New Haven Department of Arts, Culture & Tourism, and the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. In the interest of full transparency, the Arts Paper is an arm of the Arts Council but is editorially independent from it.
Elm City Lit Fest Founder IfeMichelle Gardin with visual artist Bianca Kay Anderson and Inner-City News Editor Babz Rawls-Ivy.
“Whenever artists perform, community gathers,” said Kica Matos, a proprietor who has helped plan the series several years in a row. “And that is what the pop ups do. They bring some of the best elements of New Haven together—the arts, community and the Green. The focus has been on bringing local talent to the Green, which makes it all the more rewarding.”
The pop-ups were born three years ago, following over 100 K2 overdoses on the Green during a two-day stretch in August 2018. Matos, who is one of the proprietors, worked with the Parks Department to organize events each week, from healing drums to Brazilian capoeira. The location is always the Bennett Fountain, which sits beside dozens of bus stops in the city’s hub-and-spoke system. As artists performed, dozens of passers-by hustled past on their way to other parts of the city. Some stuck around after seeing that their buses were running late.
Friday, onlookers gathered as Robbins laid out a towel and a board, and started to feel out the ground beneath her. Around her, a few attendees exploded into smiles; others kept their masks fitted tightly over their faces. McDonnell picked up his sax and began to play, the notes cutting through the thick, humid air. Schloss let out an easy, smooth flurry of notes on the bass. Robbins’ feet slid out slowly, whispering against the board. Then she was airborne. A listener in a motorized wheelchair watched from afar, then came in to thank the group between numbers.
Top: Robbins, McDonnell and Schloss. Bottom: Griffin Health Nurse Allison Federico.
At a mobile vaccination site from Griffin Hospital nearby, three newly vaccinated New Haveners pulled out their phones and began to record. Nurse Allison Federico moved to the edge of the tent and watched Robbins carefully. She let Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination” whisk her away momentarily.
Born and raised in Derby, Federico said that the pop-up, which “would never happen in my city,” made the sticky afternoon go faster. By 1 p.m., Griffin had given nine vaccinations. She had five hours to go before she could head home.
“It’s nice,” she said as a woman joined Robbins and began to sway in time with the music, arms rising and falling. “It’s culture.”
Emma Luisa, who came for her vaccine and stayed for the Rumberos de Bregamos.
By the fountain, Robbins packed up as the Rumberos de Bregamos—drummers who play at Bregamos Community Theater in Fair Haven—set out their congas and pulled out claves and . As Bregamos Founder Rafael Ramos turned the bricks beneath his feet into a stage, newly-vaccinated Emma Luisa decided to stay for the group’s set. Friday, she decided to get vaccinated to protect members of her family and community. Now she was seeing a slice of that community in action.
Back at the fountain, the drummers were easing into a rhythm. Seventeen months into the pandemic, Ramos said that the theater’s mission to gather and make art “by hook or by crook” has never seemed more relevant. Beside him, Jose Apache Rivera closed his eyes and lifted his face to the sky. Bringing his shekere into one palm, he offered a Yoruba prayer to Eleguá, blessing the space.
Rafael Ramos, the founder of Bregamos Community Theater, with New Haven Promise summer interns.
Ramos stepped forward, his hands tap-tapping on a wood guiro as he looked around. Dressed in all white, he and members of the group glowed in the sun. The drums undulated over the space, a heartbeat in the heart of New Haven.
“This is not Church and Chapel for nothing,” Ramos said.
Maikel Labrada, who had come to the Green to catch the Winchester Avenue bus, started to salsa to the music, his arms cutting through the air. A year ago, Labrada arrived in New Haven from Cuba. Because he is disabed, he hasn’t been able to find work. Friday, he said the music helped ease his mind after watching coverage of the protests unfolding in his nation’s streets. There’s something familiar about the drums that brings him home.
“I’m Cuban, they’re Puerto Rican, I love this,” he said.
Top: Maikel Labrada. Shae Reeves, a poet and songwriter who grew up in New Haven.
This year, the series is also a chance for New Haven artists to experiment with—and get paid for—public performance. Reeves, who grew up in New Haven and returned to the city after attending Western Connecticut State University, came with two new pieces of poetry and an original song. While they write “pretty much whenever” a thought strikes them, they haven’t done much singing in public. They saw the pop-up as a chance to “break out of my comfort zone.”
As they approached the mic, a few listeners came closer, leaning in to hear the poetry. Wisps of Reeves’ purple hair danced in a welcome breeze. Ramos, who had been playing the drums just moments before, stopped to listen. A family pulled their bikes around the fountain and braked.
“I cried out my own name/begging to be held/In warm embrace like a soft-hearted child/Uncertain,” they began. “In the desolate valley of shadows, I sought out the light/Flickering in the closet like moths are drawn to fires/Crawled out of bed as the flames grew.”
For live video from the event, click on the Facebook Live links above or visit the Arts Council’s Facebook Page. Pop-Up Coordinator Dyme Ellis is still seeking proposals for weekly performers. Apply here.