The New York City Food Riot of 1917 is a culturally fascinating, socially significant, but little known blip on the city's historical radar. Occurring in the same period as World War 1, The Food Riot seems to have slipped quietly through the cracks of its time. As the war raged overseas an increasing number of immigrants fled to America. Give Us Bread examines the ones that migrated to Manhattan and populated the growing neighborhoods on the Lower East Side. Location is everything, and The Anthropologists (actresses Jean Goto, Sonja Sweeney, Jennifer Moses and Katy Rubin) along with artistic director Melissa Fendell Moschitto have chosen an ideal venue for their historical drama. Give Us Bread is staged at the CSV Cultural Center, centrally located in the same Lower East Side neighborhood the play's characters inhabit.
In 1917, with the world at war and immigration bursting at the seams, prices for basic food items such as milk, onions, bread and potatoes were inflating faster than the average worker’s wages. Demand far outweighed supply, forcing pushcart peddlers to raise their prices, first steadily, than sharply until items that once cost .11 suddenly cost .19.
These prices were being gouged from a working class that was 80% female with 90% originating from a foreign country. Men were disappearing from the scene, either abandoning families they could no longer support or dying of illnesses associated with poor factory conditions.
Women who could work toiled in sewing factories from daybreak to sundown while those who couldn’t pawned goods or sold handcrafted arts. Unfortunately, with all the diseases spreading through the tightly packed homes, the distribution of handcrafted items was soon banned, leaving many women with little to no means of income.
“What will I do? What will I do?” widowed Irish mother Elizabeth (Jennifer Griffee) asks herself while rocking manically in her chair. This is the question on all the womens’ minds as the prices continue to climb with each new day.
The immigrant women spotlighted in Give Us Bread include a plucky Asian orphan named Jenny (Jean Goto), the aforementioned Elizabeth (Jennifer Griffee), a fiery Italian, Concetta (Shayna Padovano), Rivka (Katy Rubin), a Jewish woman raising her talented daughter, Hannah (Sonja Sweeney) and Marie Ganz (Jennifer Moses), a character based on the real life anarchist and rebel.
The fresh-off-the-boat women are not proficient in English and are often childlike in their attempts to understand their new world. Still, the actresses play their respective roles with strength and intelligence as they work to overcome language barriers and find a common bond.
However, it is not until Marie Ganz’s rousing call to arms that the women are finally stirred to take a unified course of action. Ganz is clever. She plays on America’s gender stereotypes and sympathies. She garners public support, and in a poignant, powerful moment her character stands front and center on a box while a slide show of real faces from the 1917 Food Riot are projected behind her.
Post performance, Hasia Diner, Professor of American Jewish History at New York University, gave a brief background lecture confirming the validity of the historical moods, attitudes and facts touched upon in the narrative. In fact, every performance is followed by a contribution from a guest author or visiting historian.
With an impressive lineup of knowledgeable lecturers, a website filled with research blogs and a playbill crammed with statistics and timelines, The Anthropologists live up to the meaning of their name. The company has effectively resurrected a lost revolution from New York’s past and given it a chance to shine in such a way that it will never be forgotten again.