By Clarissa Sosin
When Queens-based playwright Judith Sloan finished reading Sinclair Lewis’s novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” she knew she needed to write a play. The 1930’s semi-satirical novel about a fictional politician who rises to power by appealing to angry voters with jingoistic promises hit close to home, she said.
It was the summer of 2017 and President Donald Trump had just taken office. She wanted to understand how people react to and connect with each other when under an oppressive regime.
“When Trump got elected I was immediately thinking about all of the ways that life was going to change,” she said.
A year later, Sloan’s play, titled “It Can Happen Here,” will premiere on Sept. 30 at 7:30pm at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center in Queens. The event is free and open to the public. The project is part of the Queens Council on the Arts’ inaugural Artist Commissioning Program, a nine-month initiative during which the council gave four Queens based artists $10,000 toward a project that engages with the community as well as artistic direction and logistical support.
“Her artistic background speaks to this program,” said Program Manager Kelly Olshan. “She definitely has demonstrated in her career a commitment to telling story of Queens and Queens citizens.”
The one-act play is set in a hair salon. It is fictional but stems from a series of interviews and workshops that Sloan did with residents of Southeastern Queens, she said. She asked residents what the phrase “it can’t happen here” meant to them and uncovered the ways in which national and local issues play out in everyday life. People brought up everything from threats to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients and immigration status to the lasting effects of Hurricane Sandy.
Sloan said that the participants thought that they were insulated from certain horrors, including natural disasters like a hurricane or political threats like an autocratic tyrant.
“Certain kinds of things just don’t happen,” Sloan said of the participants’ responses. “Well, guess what. Everything is happening,”
While the play is based in Queens, it touches on universal issues, according to art producer Brendez Wineglass, who worked on the project.
“I think the play would reflect anyone’s community,” Wineglass said, “However it so beautifully paints Jamaica because Jamaica is the most diverse place in the world, and specifically New York City.”
Sloan moved to Queens 27 years ago. Since then, much of her work has focused on her adopted borough. This play was not her first time interviewing Queens residents for material for her projects.
“I live there,” she said. “Do you know what I mean? It’s my home.”