If all public meetings convened by acronymed local agencies benefited from the voice of talented thespians, local politics might be more transparent, and definitely more entertaining.
The Civilians, an investigative theater troupe, takes social debate to the stage through research and interviews that form the content of their scripts. Last year, Urban Omnibus featured a video segment on The Civilian’s performance Brooklyn at Eye Level, which was an early iteration of its current production In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards. In the Footprint dissects the issues surrounding the contentious Atlantic Yards development, drawing on testimony from local business owners, outspoken residents and community organizers. The play presents diverse points of view in the words of people involved in or affected by this controversial project, from the owner of a neighborhood bagel shop to celebrated Atlantic Yards proponent Jay-Z. It succeeds not only in representing the range of interested parties, but also in providing space for each voice. Given the pathos of the last line in the closing song, “you have the right to your own space but not the space that’s all around you,” the collection of voices resounding through one theater is a unique achievement.
In the Footprint catalyzes dialogue among audience members because it creates a conversation that animosity between opposing camps prevented from actually happening in real life. For example, onstage the zealous ACORN director Bertha Lewis can spar with the equally passionate Patti Hagan, founder of Prospect Heights Action Coalition. Both women care deeply about the implications of the project and acknowledge its complexity (Lewis lauds the potential for jobs, low income housing and community improvement while Hagan decries the corruption of officials and destruction of the neighborhood), something that may have been lost sight of over years of argument and protest. Audience members are able to see a microcosm of what was at stake in the project, and because the production uses the actual words of the real-life stakeholders it portrays, this microcosm is not so much simplified as distilled.
Of course, a point of view is present; the selection of interviewees and the way in which their testimony is condensed and arranged grants sympathy to a certain side of the AY debate. Opponents of the project are given more stage time and seem more quirky than grandstanding supporters. Developers Forest City Ratner and Mayor Bloomberg declined to be interviewed for the project and thus their only lines are drawn from press releases and public statements — but considering they have been the dominant force in the Atlantic Yards saga, it’s hard to bemoan their lack of representation in In the Footprint. After all, it is a production by The Civilians about civilians. The stage gives a platform for many voices who didn’t have the microphone during the process, like the owner of a nearby beauty shop and a security guard, along with those who did. And given its themes of urban character and neighborhood, the play achieves just what a good neighborhood ought to: interaction and discussion.
The Civilians say they use a journalistic approach to examine the layers of complexity around a certain issue. In the case of Atlantic Yards, drama and complexity abound. In the Footprint becomes a lens to scrutinize the deeper socioeconomic and racial conflicts entangled in the new Nets arena. Often, the debate over the development was a vehicle to air grievances about the gentrification of Prospect Heights and express tension between black and white residents – a reality that, at the time, escaped many onlookers who were not directly ensnared in the issue. Through the dialogue, the audience can piece together a history of Prospect Heights and Fort Greene from redlining to gentrification. Ultimately, very little is said about basketball, but much is revealed about Brooklyn and Brooklyn identity. Sports, as is often the case, became a metaphor for hometown pride – the Dodgers are invoked a number of times, usually by Borough President Marty Markowitz – and everyone seems to weigh in on what it means to be a Brooklynite. As the Hagan character point out, Brooklyn, despite the fact that it could easily exist as its own city, has no local newspaper. It does, though, have a lot of bloggers.
Bloggers, vocal citizens and actors too, it turns out. Steve Cosson directs a performance that recalls the historic role of theater as a platform for social commentary: at one point the aforementioned bloggers even join in a bathrobed Greek chorus and remind the audience of the potential for dialogue and education that comes at the intersection of art and community activism.
In the Footprint runs through Saturday night at the Irondale center in Fort Greene.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.