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.”
The role comes during a landmark year —ten years since Dawson debuted in Kids, and eleven years since Rent debuted at the New York Theatre Workshop on East Fourth Street.
“The anniversary has been very nostalgic for me and everyone from Rent. It’s the circle of life,” Dawson says, quoting The Lion King without irony. “Everyone’s right here, where I came up, where I was discovered. It really is bohemia—it’s based on La Bohème, of course—that idealism of not taking anyone else’s rules for what this life is, not settling for air-conditioning, just making that love and beauty and life … ”
Bona fide East Village celebrities are local treasures, like the dodo or the $1 hot dog. Rosario Dawson is one such hot dog.
If filming 25th Hour taught Rosario that “your life can change in a day” and Kids taught her that “the choices you make aren’t arbitrary; they matter,” then Rent has reminded her that “I want to leave a legacy.” She’s producing a film this fall for a childhood friend to direct, expanding her political activism (she recently spoke out against the Guantánamo detentions), and is even considering going back to school. If anything, she says, she’s learned from her mistakes that “I’m not going to do another movie that I hate. If I was ever stuck away from my family doing something cute, and something terrible happened, I’d hate myself.”
But first, there’s Two Gentlemen of Verona in Central Park. “It’s hippie-dippy, seventies fun, a totally funky, awesome show,” she says, thoroughly enjoying her first trip to the stage. “It’s Shakespeare for the people that anybody can get.” She describes a summer-camp vibe among the cast, complete with a few Fresh Air Fund wildlife sightings.
“We have dragonflies and mosquitoes, and there was this whole flock of birds—I don’t know what to call ’em—cranes or something,” says the native New Yorker, amazed. “Raccoons scrounge around the stage and look at you, like, I’m trying to eat over here. You wanna start some damage? Well, come on … I’m used to rats and garbage bags shaking—but raccoons?”
Perhaps the wildlife will be more friendly out West. It may come as a shock to her faithful, but when the play is over, the queen of the East Village will be leaving her people. She and her boyfriend, actor Jason Lewis (best known as Samantha’s washboard-abbed boyfriend on Sex and the City), are moving out of the city and in together. In California. “I was always against that,” she says, almost apologetically, promising that she’ll visit regularly. “We have our two Ridgebacks together, and they’re big dogs. I can’t imagine having them in a tiny apartment.”
Still, like a suburbanite afraid of visiting the city, Dawson worries about safety.
“There’s no fire escape—so what do you do?” Dawson frets. “I’m used to being surrounded by people, above me, below me, next door. We’ll be alone. And we’re going to be on the first floor—I’ve never been on the first floor. What’s gonna keep people from just walking in?”