Getting the picture, but wondering about the story
Everyone knows that identity runs deep in Brooklyn -- and I confess that one of the reasons I like living there part time is that it reminds me of the willful neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., back in the 1960s and 1970s when I was a kid in Anacostia and Hillcrest. But like all places of identity, you don't really get to claim ownership unless you were born there or somehow got there when the most mythical neighborhood-building activity was going on. By every definition, I'm a latecomer to Brooklyn. I'm a post-hipster, post-hardscrabble, post-we-did-it-our-way interloper.
All of this was reeling in my thoughts when I saw the recent Boston premiere of In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards at ArtsEmerson's Paramount Theater. In the spirit of The Laramie Project and journo-actor-writer Anna Deavere Smith, the Brooklyn-based "investigative theater" group The Civilians conducted interviews, residencies and research around politicians, activists and neighbors involved with the controversial development projects in their beloved community. They developed the script based on those stories. ArtsEmerson provided a residency to the cast last year and, after its Brooklyn premiere, brought it back to Boston -- where similar civic issues such as the Big Dig and Harvard's Allston project have also been contentious -- even as everyone seems to agree that the stunning Paramount renovation has been good for the city and the arts.
The Civilians piece is a primer about Brooklyn's spirit and acreage -- the neighborhoods -- and about the power of The Man. But I found myself distracted by another quality that I've come to associate with documentary theater: righteousness. That's the nature of political theater, of protest theater and (I guess) of investigative theater. It may even be the soul of a community done wrong. In some way that righteousness tells the story better than newspapers, but it rarely makes for a gripping night of theater. (And I've seen the Civilians do gripping.)
More importantly, the show left me wondering: What is the role of narrative in reporting-based theater? And why is theater increasingly taking on the documentary format? Is it our longing to see neighbors, rather than celebrity, depicted onstage? Is life really stranger than fiction?
In the Footprint has a scrappy, gutsy cast digging around at scabs that go beyond building a sports arena. The piece has much to teach us about standing up, acting out, fighting strong, and writer/director Steven Cosson makes sure there's a lot of humor amidst the anger, angling and displacement, particularly in Michael Friedman's original tunes. I wanted more story, but I did get the picture.
PHOTO: In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, presented by The Civilians. Photo: Carol Rosegg.