Music by Joshua Fried and Iris Rose
The Pyramid Club, NYC September 1984
January 1985 – Diverse Works, Houston, TX
January/February 1985 – Limbo, NYC
April 1985 – Theater Tweed Second Annual New Works Festival, Our Studios, NYC
November 1985 – The Pyramid Club, NYC
March 1987 – La Haye Art Center, Sonoma, CA
March 1987 – The Lab, San Francisco, CA
March 1987 – Oranges/Sardines, Los Angeles, CA
Fall 1990 – Plymouth-Canton High School, Plymouth, MI
March 1994 – California State University Long Beach, CA
March 1995 – Theater Tweed’s 10th Anniversary Reunion Festival, Ohio Theatre, NYC
An American Musical Tragedy
Recitative: Welfare Mother
Aria: Shopping Mall
Recitative: The Wright Family
Recitative: Jimmy and Peaches
Recitative: The Story of Camden
Aria: Stuck in Camden
Aria: The Drowning
Besides reading the National Enquirer (see National Enquirer) during her free hours as
receptionist at Jordan Textile, Iris Rose also read the Village Voice every week. The cover of
the January 10, 1984, issue was topped by the bold title “Drowned in Sorrow” above a
half-page photo of a bleak industrial landscape. Village Voice cover Subtitled “A Mother Is
Indicted for Murdering Her Children”, the moving story by Jan Hoffman detailed the tragic life
of Jeanne Ann Wright, a young welfare mother who drowned her four children in the
depressed southern New Jersey city of Camden. Iris immediately began envisioning the
story’s transformation into a companion piece to her similarly grim domestic drama House of
Just as the story of the Jahnkes had echoed the Greeks’ house of Atreus, Jeanne Ann
Wright’s had parallels to Medea, who also killed her children in a moment of despair. But
instead of using the traditions of Greek tragedy to structure her new piece, as she had in
House of Janhke, Iris decided to create an opera, though one that was far from traditional.
Iris met Joshua Fried soon after moving to New York City and asked him to provide an hour’s
worth of music for her first New York performance, Mysteries, which combined text from
Dashiell Hammett novels with music and movement inspired by tarot cards. Joshua had
attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he met James Siena, Iris’ future
husband, and Iris met them both working on a performance at a Tribeca gallery with a group
of Ithaca artists she’d befriended at a party just three weeks after arriving in the city.
Iris was very happy with Joshua’s highly inventive music for Mysteries, and they had enjoyed
a comfortable working relationship, so she asked him to employ his own highly distinctive
style of electronic composition to create the music for the new opera, to be called Camden,
an American Musical Tragedy. Joshua used a variety of styles from rap to folk ballad to
Muzak and a variety of sounds, both electronically created and found, to form a continuous,
propulsive, and moving score.
The staging for Camden was very simple – for the most part, Iris alone on a bare stage with a
stand microphone and a couple of essential props. She was, however, assisted by a
“koken”, a tradition borrowed from kabuki theater, where mute performers dressed entirely
in black, with black mesh-covered faces, help performers with props or fast costume
changes while remaining “invisible” to the audience. The koken removed the belt attached
to Iris’ handcuffs, caught props she threw offstage (a baby, her own heart), and wound blue
crepe paper across the stage to create New Jersey’s Cooper River.
Camden began with the koken leading a handcuffed Jeanne Anne onstage, then stepping
forward to the microphone and speaking (violating the ancient rules of kabuki theater): “On
February 21, 1984, Jeanne Anne Wright pleaded guilty to the charge that she drowned her
four children in the Cooper River.” The koken then removed Jeanne Anne’s handcuff belt
and left her alone onstage.
The show was divided into five sections, each with a different topic, and for each there was a
“recitative” that advanced the story and an “aria” that captured the emotional essence of
that subject – concepts borrowed from traditional opera, though loosely interpreted. The first
recitative was about Jeanne Anne’s life as a single mom and the first aria about how it felt to
go to the Cherry Hill Mall with her children after cashing her welfare check. The second
section told the history of the Wright family and portrayed Jeanne Anne’s epilepsy. The third
section was about her relationships to the two fathers of her children. It ended with a fast-
paced rap about love, sex, and passion that escalated to her ripping open her shirt to reveal
a red T-shirt with an appliquéd rib cage and pulling out a stuffed heart from a hidden pocket.
She held it aloft while she shouted “Anyplace I hang my heart is home!”
As Jeanne Anne re-fastened her shirt, the intro music began to “The Story of Camden”,
which told the classic boom and bust tale of an American industrial city, followed by an aria
about the despair of living in that blighted place. The final section began with Jeanne Anne
in a moment of despair, after her assistance had been cut off and she was homeless. The
final aria, sung as the koken strung a crepe paper river in the background, represented the
murder of her children. The piece ended with a loud rush of water as Jeanne Anne stood
immobile, lost and horrified.
Camden premiered at the Pyramid Club in September 1984, with James Siena as the koken, and, like House of Jahnke, was reviewed by Thomas McEvilley in Artforum. He praised Iris’ ability to write performances that were insightful without being boring, and summed up with the sentence “This is important work.”
In 1985, Ferro Botannica magazine included a 45 single in one of its issues. On one side were
three songs by They Might Be Giants; on the other were the songs “Insane” by Joshua (Mr.
Fried dropped his last name for his dance music) and Aria: Shopping Mall from Camden.
Ferro Botannica 45
Iris performed Camden many times over the next decade, in a variety of venues, with many
different people performing the duties of the koken – including Chazz Dean, Matthew Edison, Kurt Fulton, and Jeanne Gallo – after a brief, sometimes last-minute training session. In March 1987, she performed it (paired with Velma Barfield from The Serial Killer Series) at several spaces in California, including Oranges/Sardines gallery in downtown Los Angeles, where her performance art career had begun five years earlier, less than a year before she moved to New York City. Unlike most live performances, Camden was always exactly the same length, since it was sung live to a continuous backing tape.
In 1985, Iris performed Camden at the Theater Tweed Second Annual New Works Festival.
One of those in attendance was a high school teacher from Plymouth, Michigan, named
Barb Masters, who had brought a group of her students to New York City, as she did every
year, to see art, theater, and poetry. She was so struck by the performance that she
decided to make it part of the curriculum for her English class, and she contacted Iris,
through a former student and mutual friend, and obtained a cassette tape of Camden.
That recording remained part of the American Dreams unit of the English curriculum at
Plymouth-Canton High School (along with Death of a Salesman and A Raisin in the Sun) for at
least the next decade, even after Barb Masters had retired. Before she retired, however, with
the financial support of the local arts council, she brought Iris to the school to perform
Camden (paired with Amelia Earhart from Pioneers of Aviation) for the student body. Three years
later, one of the students who had attended that performance raised the funds to fly Iris to
California to perform Camden and Amelia Earhart at her college. The fact that the college was
California State University Long Beach, Iris’ alma mater, was merely a remarkable
In March 1995, at Theater Tweed’s 10th Anniversary Reunion Festival, Iris performed
Camden for the last time. Theater Tweed calendar