The multi-ethnic cultures of New York City in the 1980s are not what immediately come to mind when thinking of a fairy tale setting. Yet in Ben Snyder’s new play Shoe Story, having its Los Angeles premiere at Theatre of NOTE on April 15, the play is billed as an urban fairy tale.
Snyder, who is in his final year of graduate school at the University of Texas, where he is pursuing an MFA in playwriting, says, “I imagined this play as a story of a young person being told a fairy tale from a storybook, except it’s an urban fairy tale that takes place in the late ’80s in New York City. The feeling is almost as if it’s a medieval time with dragons and wizards.
“To me that’s how people who grew up in New York City in the ’70s and ’80s think of that time. When they tell stories of their childhood, it feels like there could be dragons. It has this larger-than-life storybook quality because the city was so different and so intense. The director of this production, Maureen Huskey, really caught on to that and did a very nice job of finding the kind of heightened theatricality of that idea.”
The play is a coming-of-age story about Pee Wee and his relationship with a mysterious street-smart character named O.G. Mar, who is also the storyteller/narrator. It’s set in a shoe store owned by Yu, an overworked Korean father who is struggling to survive.Â Snyder credits the motion picture The Princess Bride, in which the story is told to a boy and the action goes in and out of the fairy tale, as an inspiration.
Also influencing the genesis of the play, continues Snyder, was that “in the late ’80s there was media frenzy around kids killing each other for sports clothing with collectible logos,” continues Snyder. “Whether or not that was happening a lot or it only happened a few times, I don’t know, but it got a lot of press.”
And he drew on his own experience: “I was doing a lot of violence prevention work in high schools in New York City. In 2000/2001 when I talked to young people, gangs were not cool. They were kind of corny; they were dated and they were out of style. Then about five or six years later, I started seeing a lot more kids with their colors and with their bandanas and beads. I started to notice a kind of a resurgence of gangs and gang culture.
“I also noticed that in different neighborhoods, the corner stores, the bodegas, were carrying items for gangs like the right color beads or the right color bandanas. I started sketching a piece about a corner store caught in a very violent environment trying to survive. That play didn’t go anywhere but I did pull some of the characters for Shoe Story.”
“Right around that time,” Snyder recalls, “I was heading home from a party late at night in Brooklyn and I got to the subway, and there was a young man who had just been beaten and robbed of his shoes and thrown on the railroad tracks. He wasn’t hurt, but he was in shock because the friends who were with him didn’t do anything. One of his friends was like, “˜Listen, we could call my cousin and we can borrow his gun, and you can go look for those guys, or you need to stop crying and acting like a baby. Like do something or don’t. It happens. Get over it.’ That kind of stayed with me, this matter of fact response to this guy who was in a lot of pain. It also felt very dated to me. Wow, people still get robbed for their shoes. It was like a throwback in time. The culmination of all that and these ideas in my head started me on the path towards writing Shoe Story.”
Snyder shares some of the struggles he had with the development of the play. “I had a hard time getting a grasp on the language. I moved to New York in 1998. I didn’t know what it was to be in New York in the ’80s. The street language today is different than it was then.
“At the same time I found myself unable to write the character of Yu, the Korean store owner, without leaning on all the wrong stereotypes. I was getting frustrated and I was going to scrap the character. One day the actor who had been doing the readings for me asked what was going on with the play. When I told him I was going to cut the character of Yu, he asked me why? I said, “˜I don’t know him, I don’t know that voice and I don”˜t know that world.’
“He said, “˜Look, my uncle was the king of handbags in New York City. He was in with the Korean Business Association.’ Then he said, “˜He lives in New Jersey now. Let’s go out to Jersey and you interview him and ask him whatever you need to know.’ The uncle broke it all down for me, the language, certain parts of the story and I learned his voice. It was so clear after that.”
The play also reflects the pyramid of influence and race politics, Snyder explains. Loans that were going to the new immigrants to start their businesses were coming from Jews. “I’m Jewish and some of my family was involved in similar things in Los Angeles. They gave loans to the black community who couldn’t get them elsewhere. And the Korean uncle I interviewed had also borrowed money from Jews in New York.”
There was one last person Snyder credits for the completion of Shoe Story. “Bobbito Garcia was incredibly helpful. He’s famous in New York but he’s also known around the world. He played professional basketball in Puerto Rico. He’s also an expert on sneakers and sneaker culture. He wrote the definitive book on New York City sneaker culture, called Where’d You Get Those? That book was my research; it was all there.
“He breaks everything down,” Snyder says, “and he does it with a sense of humor. It’s fun and with the photos, it’s an amazing book. I met with Bobbito in New York. He’d read the play and was curious to know how I’d heard of any of the shoes? He felt I was too young and the shoes that were really sought after were mostly in New York City and I’m not from New York.”
Snyder continues, “I told him I read his book and he was flattered, and eventually he served as my dramaturge. He taught me about the shoes and helped me with the language and was a really useful guide along the way.”
What does Snyder hope his audiences will take away from Shoe Story? “I don”˜t know if I’m necessarily trying to impart any knowledge or wisdom to my audiences that they don”˜t already have. I’m hoping they enjoy the play. I’m hoping they laugh and, if they feel so inspired, they cry. I hope they have a good experience in the theater and in the end the play will lead to good conversation.”
**All production photos by Darrett Sanders
Shoe Story opens April 15; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; until May 22. Tickets: $18-$22. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd, Hollywood; 323-856-8611. www.theatreofnote.com.