At time of tragedy in Jersey City, the arts demonstrate community love

December 20, 2019

A file photo of Nimbus Danceworks' Jersey City Nutcracker.
A file photo of Nimbus Danceworks' Jersey City Nutcracker.
A file photo of Nimbus Danceworks’ Jersey City Nutcracker.

Note: Nimbus Dance’s Sam Potts shared the below letter with its community following the anti-Semitic Dec. 10 attack on the JC Kosher Supermarket in Jersey City, which left three victims and two suspects dead. The Dodge Foundation received the letter and requested we share it with the broader New Jersey nonprofit community, as we believe Potts’ words and perspective shows a deep love of community and offers a unique way to interpret and understand the tragedy and the role of the arts in communities. The stark difference between the space created within Nimbus’ performance – onstage and among the audience – and the shooting spree that was happening at precisely the same moment in another section of Jersey City lays bare the role that the arts can play in envisioning and creating something counter to prevailing realities and narratives.

Our community was recently jolted and devastated by an incident of brutal and hateful violence. At around 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 10, two individuals targeted a Jewish grocery store, opened fire on innocent people and did battle with heroic law enforcement officers who put their lives at risk to protect the community. A police officer, Detective Joseph Seals, and three civilians were killed; two other officers were injured. Unbelievably, this tragic ritual of American life: senseless gun violence and hate crime has become normalized. Our beloved hometown was just the most recent community to be struck.

At precisely the same moment that havoc was erupting in one part of Jersey City, Nimbus Dance was inviting a group of 150 elementary school students from Rafael de Cordero, P.S. #37, into our theater for a matinee performance of Jersey City Nutcracker, to be performed by our company dancers along with 12 students from Henry Snyder High School, located mere blocks from the site of the shooting. In a cocoon of theatrical warmth, imagination, and shared purpose, our re-envisioned version of Nutcracker told a story of two Jersey City youth whose adventures through the streets of Jersey City lead them to a magical manhole cover. Through this secret portal, the kids emerge in Act II into “a glimmering vision of what our city might one day become.”

During a break between Acts I and II, I went onstage to question the youth audience members, about what they guessed this glimmering vision for Jersey City might look like. They called out: “Clean – no garbage on the streets!” “Reindeer and Santa and lots of presents!” “People care about each other and are nice!” “More slides and swings and playgrounds!” The wide-eyed schoolkids were enraptured by the dance which had opened their minds to new possibilities for what a city could be like, by extension, these Jersey City kids were considering their own community and their own visions for the future. The kids cheered and cheered.

When the performance was over, I was pulled aside and told about the shooting, that the schools were on lockdown and that the students would need to stay put at our facility. We stalled for time – kids asked questions of the dancers, dancers offered to take pictures with the kids. The Snyder High School students, many of whom live in neighborhoods racked by gun violence and poverty, led the younger kids in dance games, ‘Simon Says,’ and other fun activities, demonstrating exceptional empathy, maturity, and leadership under the stressful circumstances.

By 4:30 p.m., we received the signal that students could be released to their parents and the elementary school kids, high school students, professional dancers, Jersey City public school teachers and parent chaperones, each went their separate ways into the eerily quiet and dark early evening. The bubble of unity that had been formed among this diverse and eclectic group of Jersey City people, could be seen as a momentary glimpse of what could be, within a world that had become suddenly more ominous, dangerous, and filled with uncertainty.

A parallel reality existed on that day in Nimbus’ space, and in the alternate universe of Jersey City Nutcracker onstage. While the nation’s attention was directed to more of the horrifying violence that we have endured regularly in recent years, the young people, the Snyder High students, the Jersey City School teachers and the Nimbus dancers, made a statement that will endure for all who were present: we WILL build our reality, our vision for the future, our city of unity, in the face of the darkness that might lurk outside.