Celebrity in the East Village is a strange thing. Where else could a mumbling, skinny-ass punk like Joey Ramone get a corner named after him? Where else could Karen Finley become famous by slathering an NEA grant’s worth of honey all over her nude body? Where else could Blondie front woman Debbie Harry go gray?
As paparazzi shots prove, the West Village, Soho, Tribeca, and the Upper West Side are places where megacelebrities breed, while the East Village has always been a stomping ground for the endangered species of niche stars: performance artists (Kiki & Herb), punk rockers (the Ramones), gallery icons (Keith Haring), and plain crazy people (Lady Bunny). And for this local fauna, the environmental signs are troubling: CBGB languishes while an entrepreneur plans to open the “East Village Mall” in Las Vegas, the rock scene has snuck off to Williamsburg, and the average apartment price has climbed astronomically. All of which makes the few bona fide East Village celebrities rare and precious things: local treasures to be conserved and cherished, like the dodo or the $1 hot dog. Rosario Dawson is one such hot dog.
“We spend a lot of our time wondering where the next generation of visionaries is going to come from,” says Phil Hartman, director of the Howl! Festival of East Village Arts. “There was Allen Ginsberg; then we have the next generation: Penny Arcade, Karen Finley, Kiki Smith, folks like that. Where’s the next generation? Rosario is really inspirational.”
Rosario. With her verging-on-mono-monikered fame, Rosario Dawson is the actress who rather famously grew up squatting with her family on Avenue A—where she was discovered at 15 by Larry Clark and Harmony Korine, and cast in the sex-and-drug-addled Kids, the most controversial film of the nineties. In the years since that nihilistic debut, Dawson has emerged as a kind of figurehead for sexy, politically aware East Village attitude: starring in two Spike Lee pictures; drinking beers at Max Fish; getting arrested at the Republican convention while filming an activist movie; acting as patron saint of the Lower Eastside Girls Club; wearing bondage gear in Sin City that could have been purchased on St. Marks Place. Diverse as downtown—she’s African-American, Cuban, Irish, Native American, and Puerto Rican—Dawson has, like her neighborhood, even flirted with gentrification, and with similarly mixed results, in well-paying studio pictures like Men in Black II, Josie and the Pussycats, and Alexander.
“I came up in that neighborhood, I got discovered in that neighborhood, I’m known as a New York person,” proclaims Dawson, as if running for mayor of the East Village (she’s more like the queen). “This is where I come from, and I respect and honor that.”
As Avenue A royalty, Dawson will add three impressive jewels to her scuzzy crown this year. The first is her stage debut, as part of the Village’s most famous export, the free Shakespeare in the Park Festival. She’s playing Julia in a revival of John Guare’s seventies multicultural musical version of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. Then on Saturday, August 27, she’ll march at the head of the sprawling Howl! Festival of East Village Arts parade representing all that is good and bohemian and full-lipped about the neighborhood.
“She’s our grand marshal,” says Hartman, who notes that she’s in august company. Taylor Mead, the performance artist and onetime Andy Warhol crony, crows Hartman, “is our Grand Marsha.”
But Rosario’s shiniest gem will be added this November, when the actress joins all but two members of the original Broadway cast of Rent in Chris Columbus’s film version of Jonathan Larson’s romantic East Village musical.
If ever a role required unbridled enthusiasm, it is that of Mimi in Rent: Mimi, of course, is the heroin-addicted stripper who has a serendipitous AIDS remission before the finale, so she can trill the final song. (Daphne Rubin-Vega, who originated the role, missed the film because she was pregnant.) The part is so Springtime for Hitler audacious that any actress playing her must utterly give in to it. Moreover, the role requires faith in some of the myths of the East Village that you’d think a bootstrapping artist like Dawson might be cynical about; she’s not.
“In Rent, all the characters are the unsung heroes,” Dawson says, harmonizing perfectly with the romantic themes that the musical celebrates. “It’s for everyone who was funky and living in a hole, breathing in the cold and taking on the plight of activism and artistic integrity, taking it on despite shelter and food, warmth in winter, or coldness in summer—living the life on their own terms, in the projects where the kids had tagged up everything. I cherish that.”