If South Berkeley sometimes feels a disconnect with the
rest of town, it's hardly surprising. When Berkeley first incorporated
in 1878, it ran south only as far as Derby Street. What's now South
Berkeley was then a separate community called Lorin, which Berkeley
annexed fourteen years later. Lorin has been defined by conflict
ever since the Spanish pushed aside the Ohlone in the 1700s. It
has changed complexions many times: Its heavily Japanese population
was sent to internment camps in the 1940s, to be replaced by Southern
blacks who came West for military service or shipyard work and bought
property where they could. The district's abandoned white churches
soon filled with black parishioners. In 1943, its South Berkeley
Community Church became the first integrated congregation in the
region, and possibly the state.
At that time, the Lorin district was a destination, with movie
theaters, big-band nightspots, banks, and record stores. Since then
it's been one damn thing after another: 1960s upheaval; the crack
epidemic and flight of chain businesses; struggle for a full-service
supermarket; and contemporary tensions over crime and drugs, perceived
gentrification, and development at Ashby BART.
When Shotgun Players moved into a former church at the corner of
Ashby Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in 2004, the first thing
the long-nomadic theater company did was try to introduce itself,
putting fliers on doorknobs and hosting open houses and free performances.
But that led nowhere. "At one open house a guy walked up: 'You
kicked my grandmother out of her church,'" founder and artistic
director Patrick Dooley recalls. "That's one of the things
that came up at a company meeting: This is not working. It feels
like an us/them thing here and that ain't right. How can we make
Their answer was to stage a play that incorporates the neighborhood's
own stories and residents. Traveling Jewish Theatre artistic director
Aaron Davidman suggested the idea to Dooley two years ago. "We
were both like, 'That's it!'" Davidman says. "Get to know
the community and let the community get to know the company."
Both men had connections to the area; Davidman previously lived
on Woolsey, and Dooley currently lives near his own theater. He
first really got to know the area eight or nine years ago when the
fire department nixed a Shotgun show at an nearby print shop, and
the players instead found themselves performing at South Berkeley
Community Church. "The pastor there said, 'Before we do this
play, you have to walk around with me to the neighbors and make
sure it's okay,'" Dooley recalls. "The first thing I noticed
was these beautiful old homes right next to some Section 8 homes.
And the neighbors themselves — I remember feeling it was like
a Benetton ad."
Dooley recruited Brooklyn-based playwright Marcus Gardley, who
grew up in West Oakland and spent a lot of time at his uncle's house
in South Berkeley as a child. For a model for The Lorin District
Project (the play's working title), Shotgun looked to Los Angeles'
Cornerstone Theater Company, which creates community-based theater
pieces such as an adaptation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, called
Steelbound, in a shuttered steel plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Dozens of laid-off steelworkers were included as cast members.
About nine months ago, the collaborators began organizing powwows
with groups of residents and encouraging them to share their tales
and concerns. "The story circles were originally about just
gathering information so he [Gardley] could have raw material to
write the play," Dooley says. "But there's a second purpose
to them, which is really to build relationships."
The story circles have continued throughout the play's creation.
Teams of Shotgun core artists were dispatched for sessions with
senior centers, alumni associations, schools, Black Panthers, Japanese
Americans, and others. "It just confirmed that everybody has
a story to tell," Shotgun member Daniel Bruno says. "The
story circle starts out with everybody saying, 'Well, I don't have
a story. I just live here.' Then there's a pause, and then they'll
say something like, 'Well, you should talk to so-and-so, because
they've lived here a long time. In fact, I remember this one time
...' And then they'll go on for half an hour."
In one instance, Bruno and actress Nicole Julien met with a neighborhood
watch group involved in a lawsuit against homeowner Lenora Moore
that alleges she has let her children and grandchildren turn her
Oregon Street house into a drug hotspot. That group was particularly
interested in knowing who else Shotgun was talking to, Julien says,
which highlights a basic truth: A community's stories often contradict
one another. For instance, Gardley says, "A lot of people who
live in that neighborhood say the Japanese weren't ever interned
from that neighborhood, they didn't live in that neighborhood, which
is of course not true."
The actors sent their notes and cassettes to the playwright, whose
strategy is to skim them for general themes, issues, and settings,
rather than for specific personal stories. "I want to respect
people and be honest about what they're saying, but I don't want
to point fingers," he says.
One of the participants reminded Julien of a character already
in the play, but odds are she's already been cut. Gardley's latest
version contains almost nothing from the previous one. "I was
like, 'What happened to the other play?'" Dooley says. "And
he goes, 'I have to get everything out, and then I can actually
write the play: Write the play I don't want to do and then write
the play I do want to do.' He's got this incredible blend of, like,
hip-hop and magic realism and docudrama and agitprop. He's bringing
in stuff from Ohlone Indians and Japanese families who lived here,
and stuff from the '80s and stuff that's happening right now, and
named all the characters after streets in South Berkeley."
On June 7, Gardley began a monthlong residency at Shotgun, which
allows the playwright and his collaborators to work more closely.
A public workshop reading is planned for July 1, and then it's time
to whip the script into shape for the September 28 opening.
Rather than perform, some of the core artists will likely serve
as acting coaches. "We didn't really talk about bringing people
into the show when we were talking to them, because we didn't want
people to feel they were auditioning," Dooley says. "But
we have been meeting some really interesting characters along the
way, and finding out things about them, like 'Oh, yeah, I play in
the church choir' or 'I used to do drama back in high school forty
years ago.' And kind of making mental notes, like: 'Must speak to
If this project is a huge undertaking, it's also a high-stakes
one. Everyone involved talks about its potential to promote goodwill,
but it's Dooley's job to think about how things could backfire.
"We have 29 years on our mortgage — what if it's a disaster:
'That's what you have to say about us?'" the director frets.
"We were all so excited about it at first, and then the responsibility
of it started to set in, and we were getting terrified. We realized
that having it not be good was just not an option."