Three years ago, the Shotgun Players theater company moved
into a barrel-vaulted building across the street from the Ashby
BART station. Company members were thrilled, not only about having
their first permanent home, but also because it was in South Berkeley,
a neighborhood that had been the canvas for some of their most memorable
There was the jam-packed performance of Agatha Christie's "Verdict"
in the back of a print shop on Adeline Street, closed down by a
police officer who couldn't understand what 100 people were doing
gathered on the sidewalk at night (it was intermission). Then the
season the company staged productions like "Man and Superman"
and "The 8th Voyage of Sinbad" at the South Berkeley Community
Church on Fairview Street, but only after Shotgun founder and Artistic
Director Patrick Dooley went door to door with the pastor to get
approval from the neighbors.
South Berkeley was a perfect fit for Shotgun, diverse and dynamic,
simpatico with the company's ideals of artistic exploration and
inclusion. They revamped the building into the Ashby Stage, and
organized an open house, inviting everyone in the neighborhood to
check out its newest cultural resource. No one showed up.
"We were perceived as outsiders," said Dooley, 38. "I
had a woman come up to me and say, 'You kicked our grandma out of
her church.' " Never mind that the church had re-located five
years earlier. Dooley's disappointment was compounded by the inauspicious
welcome he and his wife, Kimberly, had received after buying a house
in the neighborhood the year before. Their car was stolen two days
after bringing their new daughter home from the hospital. They heard
gunfire that killed a man
the next block over. They had stuff stolen off their porch.
Dooley and his wife couldn't afford to live in a neighborhood where
those kinds of events weren't part of the deal, and, besides, they
didn't want to leave. They liked the diverse history, architecture
and culture of South Berkeley, and Dooley wanted to see his neighbors
at the Ashby Stage.
But he couldn't figure out how to connect to the community. One
day, while voicing his frustrations on a stroll along Solano Avenue
-- across the city, and a world away from South Berkeley -- friend
and fellow theater director Aaron Davidman suggested a different
tack: Put the neighborhood on stage. Because there was no ready-made
play that captured the essence of South Berkeley, Davidman, 39,
artistic director of the Traveling Jewish Theatre, suggested they
do one, modeling it on the community-based work of the Cornerstone
Theater in Los Angeles. Not to be confused with community theater,
which showcases local amateur actors in the umpteenth production
of "The Music Man," community-based theater is a collaboration,
with professional artists tapping into a community's history and
experience. The Laramie Project and the work of solo performance
artist Anna Deavere Smith are some recent examples of theater built
on interviews with individuals, putting their stories onto the stage.
While performance is usually the end point in traditional theater,
with community based projects it's as much about the process, said
Jan Cohen-Cruz, associate professor of drama at New York University's
Tisch School of the Arts and author of "Local Acts: Community
Based Performance in the United States." Listening to people's
stories and soliciting their feedback on a work-in-progress can
be a springboard, a kind of community therapy that continues after
the performances end.
"When it works, it can be very powerful," said Cohen-Cruz.
Dooley and Davidman started by commissioning Marcus Gardley, a 28-year-old
New York playwright. His professional pedigree -- Master of Fine
Arts from the Yale School of Drama, work that had received awards
and acclaim -- was impressive, but even more important: Gardley
grew up in West Oakland.
As a kid, he ate at Lois the Pie Queen, he played in Grove Park.
what it was like to live in a neighborhood rife with drugs and crime.
His mother refused to let him and his siblings play outside. His
sister was stabbed, and almost died. Gardley also grew up hearing
from his great-grandmother -- who worked in
a laundry and lived in a garage after moving to Oakland from Louisiana
-- that South Berkeley was where the rich black people lived. He
had never thought of it as a nexus of dramatic tension. "But
the more I learned, the more I realized there's a lot going on here,"
For almost a year, the three researched the neighborhood. They
interviewed Melody Ermachild Chavis, who wrote "Altars in the
Street," a neighborhood memoir based on her years living on
Fairview Street amid the drug wars of the 1980s and 1990s. They
trolled the archives of the Berkeley Historical Society and the
Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. They peeled back the
layers, going back to the time of the Ohlone Indians.
"You can't just tell about what's happening now. It's a product
of what happened 40 years ago. And that was a product of what happened
before that," Dooley said. "There's history that's in
the dirt. In a creek that runs under Tyler Street, under the road.
It's covered over, but when there's a flood, you're reminded it's
Dooley, who grew up in Virginia, in a house built during the Civil
War, clearly is fascinated by the history of place. By now, he knows
South Berkeley block by block. He gave an animated oral tour of
the neighborhood, reeling off facts, leaning forward in his chair,
lifting his visor on and off his head, traces of his Southern accent
poking through the faster he talked.
In the late 1800s, he said, the area got its residential start
from a farmer-turned-developer who built houses on spec near a Union
Pacific railroad station at Alcatraz and Adeline streets. Developed
as a separate community from Oakland and Berkeley, the district
was variously called Alcatraz, Garfield and Lorin, according to
the Berkeley Historical Society. The town got its name when it applied
to establish a U.S. Post Office: Garfield was already taken, so
the community settled for Lorin.
Both Oakland and Berkeley wooed the community, but by the early
majority of the residents had voted to be annexed to the city of
Some who lived along the Alcatraz Street corridor, however, voted
to go with Oakland, giving Berkeley its zigzag southern boundary.
Racist real estate covenants made Lorin one of the only places in
Berkeley that African Americans and Japanese could buy houses. When
World War II brought the involuntary relocation of Japanese Americans
to internment camps, many of their homes were purchased by African
Americans migrating from the South to fill shipyard and factory
jobs in the East Bay. Lorin became an entertainment destination
for African Americans, with live music and theater. But the boom
didn't last. With the end of the war came the
loss of high paying blue-collar jobs. Shops closed. Whole blocks
of once stately Craftsman and Victorian homes became dilapidated,
By the early 1980s, South Berkeley was being torn apart by the
influx of crack cocaine, unemployment and gang violence. Today,
the old issues still simmer, with the newer pressures of gentrification
and a mercurial economy. To gather personal perspectives from the
community, the Shotgun Players organized more than a dozen story
circles, listening to neighborhood archivists and activists, students
and folks from the South Berkeley Senior Center and the South Berkeley
Community Church. At first, many of the participants didn't believe
they had anything of value to share, said Dooley. So he would ask
them to describe a local store where they used to shop, or a memory
from the 1970s, or what they remembered of the
Japanese internment. Or, simply what was on their mind. "Then
they'd talk for
half an hour," he said.
Gardley did phone interviews, and flew out six times from New York,
focusing on the neighborhood's young people, talking to kids hanging
out on the street, as well as residents attending Berkeley High
School and Berkeley Alternative High School. One subject that kept
coming up -- the tension between old and young -- would become a
lighting rod for the play.
"It's such a large gap, the miscommunication between older
people and young people, and that's the tragedy. I remember that
growing up," Gardley said. "Older people didn't bother
to listen. Young people had nothing to say to them."
In June, Gardley wrote in residence in South Berkeley, distilling
enough material for a Wagnerian-length work to a two-hour play.
That doesn't mean "Love is a Dream House in Lorin" shies
away from covering a vast emotional landscape. The play has a cast
of 25 characters -- all named after streets in the neighborhood
-- and touches on religious and ethnic diversity, racial tension,
drugs, murder, marriage and parenting, sibling rivalry, the generation
gap, property values and the making of umeboshi, Japanese pickled
As part of the collaborative process, Shotgun held a reading in
July of a draft version of the first two acts of the play, inviting
the community to attend and give feedback. Flyers stapled to telephone
poles around the neighborhood promised a comedy, a tragedy and a
love story all rolled into one, and, afterward, pie from a local
Once again, Dooley thought they'd been snubbed. "At 15 minutes
to 1, there were 10 people in the audience. No one was saying it,
but it was my worst nightmare. I thought the community doesn't care,
they're not interested. And I had just spent $240 on pie,"
Dooley had cause to be worried: some 85 percent of Americans don't
live theater. One of the reasons? "They don't feel that what
they care about will be on the stage," said Cohen-Cruz.
But at a few minutes before 1 p.m., Dooley said, "There was
a line out the door. We ran out of places to put people." Dooley
asked how many in the audience had come to the 99-seat theater for
the first time. A third raised their hands. Others had been in the
building, but not since it was the South Berkeley Church of Christ.
What had spurred them to venture in? Perhaps because community-based
theater has something that traditional stage performance lacks.
"For the audience and community, it's inclusive," Davidman
said. "The community has participated by telling their stories.
Whether or not their stories wind up on stage explicitly, there's
an investment in it."
At a lively talk-back session after the reading, it was clear the
connected. Many of the comments were appreciative. But there was
-- about the portrayal of racial tension and property values, about
the liberal use of profanity and racial epithets. Gardley said that
in response he removed some of the profanity -- not because he's
worried about offending people, but because he doesn't want it to
be a distraction.
"I felt like, to be honest, that the community honed in on
(profanity) because there are issues that are more pressing that
they don't want to talk about." He cited the area's high infant
mortality rate, and the fatal March shooting of a young father supervising
a teenage dance party as examples of issues that are "too personal,
too hard to deal with."
"When I was doing interviews, the n-word never came up,"
Gardley added. "People said, 'I'm afraid' or 'My neighbors
never leave their house.' The n-word, that can be taken out. But
is that what you're upset with, really?"
D. Anthony Harper, an actor who lived in South Berkeley as a child
and plays King in the play, thought it was a good sign that the
talk-back "got a little heated. If you're affecting someone,
whether they like or dislike it, it's making people think,"
Davidman, the play's director, agreed. "Part of the whole
point is to bring up stories that people have a hard time hearing,
a hard time telling," he said. "Story telling is such
a powerful tool and process for community reconciliation, community
Already, the project has created a buzz in -- and about -- the
neighborhood. Local residents -- some who had never before been
onstage -- showed up to audition for the play, and several won roles
in the cast. The reading was packed, and afterward, residents like
66-year-old Cora Brown, secretary of the South Berkeley Community
Church and one of the many story circle participants said of the
play, "I feel like it's part me in there, like it's mine, my
The impact has even crept into the real estate market. In May,
Prudential Realtor Nancy Taussig listed a 1904 row house on Ellis
Street as being in the "hip Lorin District," and gave
a plug to the Shotgun Players' "neighborhood stories"
project. Did it increase the value of the house? "What can
I tell you," she said, "It went for $100,000 over [the
Dooley hopes the reverberations continue -- after the performances,
and beyond South Berkeley. Initially he wondered if the project
would result in a play that was too provincial, the "I'm from
North Berkeley or I'm from San Francisco or I'm from Oakland. What
should I care?" syndrome, he said. "But it's a great story
that transcends the location. When you get in there, you find out
that every community has got its things, and even if you're not
from that place, you can see yourself in that place."
"Love Is a Dream House in Lorin" opens Thursday at the
Ashby Stage, with previews on Tuesday and Wednesday. The first week
admission is pay-what-you can. Janet Wells last wrote a My Word
for the Magazine about her Lorin district house.