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'Port Cities NYC' Traces NYC to Its Roots

This installation performance imagines New Amsterdam and its connections to modern New York.

Photo by Kelly Stuart

Wandering down the streets of Manhattan or Brooklyn, it is often too easy to forget that you are on an island, in a city that first gained prominence due to its value as a port. Enter the Port Cities Project, a global performance project directed by Talya Chalef that links five cities along 17th century Dutch trade routes. Port Cities NYC is its first iteration, an interactive multimedia experience that imagines the world of old New Amsterdam, modern New York and everything in the middle.

The piece begins at Pier 11 in downtown Manhattan, where the audience takes an ordinary New York Water Taxi down to Brooklyn while listening to a prerecorded soundscape on their phones. Though likely the most efficient way to get viewers to the rather inaccessible Red Hook, it would be a misnomer to call this time part of the performance. The water taxi is not reserved solely for Port Cities passengers, and the comings and goings of heavily laden Ikea shoppers are as distracting as the pestering insistence that audience members take selfies of the experience to post on social media during the show.

From here, the audience is shepherded a little ways down the pier to the Waterfront Museum, an early 20th century barge that has been fully transformed into an exhibition space. The extraordinary set designed by Jung Griffin is easily the highlight of the piece, perfectly capturing the detritus of centuries of New York living even as lively projections transform the space into something new. In fact, Port Cities NYC often feels more like an art installation we are watching from the sidelines than an actual theatrical performance.

There is no true plot that we can follow throughout the whole piece. Instead, there are a few framing principles: a contemporary young woman discovering the threads of the past while interacting with her friends in the present facing similar issues, and a heavily theatrical "Settlers of Manahatta" based on the board game Settlers of Catan. But as the performance segues from one moment to another, the overarching stories are lost in favor of a pastiche of memories reminiscent of unearthing an archive, and when the piece ends neither of these larger stories have reached any sort of conclusion.

The strongest moments of Port Cities NYC link the past and present worlds of New Amsterdam and New York directly, such as a single black actor playing both an African slave and a contemporary African American man unjustly cornered by police, or the connection of two economic bubbles: the modern housing crisis and the "tulip mania" of the Dutch Golden Age. What is often missing in the historical elements, however, is any sense of significance of their Dutch origin, the organizing principle behind the entire Port Cities Project. Meanwhile, the abstract choral sequences using all four actors—Elizabeth Gray, Marcus Crawford Guy, Emma Meltzer and Nathaniel J. Ryan—utilize movement and projections well but are not always in sync and do not build to anything in the larger piece.

If there is anything that can be said to unify the entire theatrical experience, it is the music, a delightfully evocative soundscape designed by Cameron Orr which expertly melds live and prerecorded sound. A melancholy, contemplative score allows audiences to immerse themselves in the world of a piece that barely scratches the surface of the history of New York City's 400-year-old port. While we do not get any sort of complete story as part of the performance, audiences are left with a desire to learn more about the city they unthinkingly move through every day. And perhaps that's the point.

Port Cities NYC plays at the Waterfront Museum through May 19.

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