shotgun players

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Theater Bay Area, October 2006


Lovin' Lorin

-- By Lisa Drostova

After over two years at the Ashby Stage, Shotgun Players reaches out to its Lorin District neighborhood with a new play, running through November 5.

Berkeley's small and largely residential Lorin District was not originally part of the city, and it has a rich and diverse history all its own. Home to a civically active population, it's also got an image problem, the result of "rat pack" robberies, gang violence and a devastating crack epidemic. The neighborhood also faces an uncertain future as developers eye the Ashby BART station and long-term residents are shouldered out by rising real estate prices.

Traveling Jewish Theatre artistic director Aaron Davidman, who lived in Lorin in the early 1990s, was talking to Shotgun Players artistic director Patrick Dooley soon after Shotgun moved into the Ashby Stage, about working together. Davidman had been reading Melody Ermachild Chavis's Lorin District memoir, Altars in the Street, and thought it was time for a Cornerstone Theater-inspired community-based play about the area. Dooley agreed, and last year they commissioned Oakland native and recent Yale grad Marcus Gardley, who now teaches at Columbia in New York, to write the play that would become Love Is a Dream House in Lorin.

The trio and members of the core company conducted "story circles" with local individuals and groups, from the mayor to a group of Berkeley High alums who have been meeting for more than 40 years. The process led to little ironies; actor Eric Burns, who as a kid would visit family in the neighborhood and "run through the flea market and grab stuff off the tables and keep running," ended up interviewing the merchants of the Ashby Flea Market Commission. Keeping quiet about his past, he had the same experience as many of the other researchers: "I thought it would be hard getting them to give me information, but I just put down the recorder and they went off." He also got a new perspective on one of the area's hottest issues, the proposal to build a transit village in the Ashby BART station parking lot. "I thought the merchants were mostly African Americans, but there's such a diverse cast of merchants and that's why they want so passionately to keep that open. While I was meeting with them we were walking around the flea market--it was near closing but it was still going on--people were still playing the drums, and I thought this project couldn't come at a better time."

Meanwhile actor Jessica Kitchens was talking with people at the South Berkeley Senior Center. "Even if you're going in with an agenda, or some aspect or story that you want to find more out about, you will always be surprised by what they bring up, where they go, and the wonderful things that happen when they get off track and these really beautiful moments come up." When another hot topic--neighborhood safety--was raised, "They said, 'Yes, the neighborhood's not safe; there are things that you don't do; you don't walk along the streets alone at night if you don't have to; you're aware of your environment.' But that didn't sound like a breaking point--wherever you are, you adapt to those things because it's where you live."

The research process revealed how much people knew about their community--and sometimes how little, or what they preferred to believe in the face of evidence to the contrary. One interviewee swore that there were never Japanese Lorin residents who were interned during the war because there were never Japanese in the neighborhood, period.
Gardley drew from the stories, building a play that reflected their spirit without being strictly factual. Dooley had imagined 16 actors, and Gardley tried that, but the play exploded. "Every time there was a new draft," Dooley says, "and there was a new draft every week of the month Marcus was in residence, there would be between five and eight new characters. We told him, Let your imagination run wild, we'll figure out a way to produce it." The final tally is 30 actors playing 40-odd characters.

That's a lot of people. So the team went out into the community to find their actors. According to Dooley, at the auditions they saw people they'd met "at the Juneteenth festival, kids from Berkeley High, friends of friends, a couple of kids from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre training program. People who have been singing in the church choir. A grandma who is taking acting lessons. A mother-daughter pair. Adults who are going back to college." Davidman notes that the local folks "bring a kind of lived experience to the table that is really refreshing. What they may not have in technique or training they have in lived experience, and that offers so much to a project like this." Gardley, who workshopped his drafts with the cast, also approves. "They all bring to it an authenticity, a humanity that for me makes it so real." Family members have taken to hanging out at the rehearsals, which Davidman encourages; even at the early rehearsal I visited, the sense of camaraderie and commitment within the cast was palpable.

Gardley's script moves back and forth through time, from the area's first Ohlone inhabitants to slightly into the future. A pre-internment Japanese woman describes how to pickle plums, Spanish missionaries tangle with Coyote the trickster, and a young contemporary mixed-race couple buys a fixer-upper whispering its complex past. It's a big story--poetic and sprawling--illustrating history and exposing tensions. In July it was time to take it for a spin. Would the neighbors like it? Hate it? Show up at all? The first public reading of the play was scheduled, and the Shotgunners fliered the neighborhood. The day of the event was nerve-wracking. When Shotgun had first taken possession of the space in 2004, they'd had a similar flyer drive inviting the neighbors over for an open house. Dooley estimates that only 10 or 15 people showed up that day, while the Shotgunners stood around staring at all the food they'd brought. Was the reading going to be a repeat of the open house? Fifteen minutes before the reading was supposed to start, there was almost nobody there besides the actors.

But then people started coming in. And kept coming in. The flood didn't stop until the aisles had been filled with chairs and people were standing in the halls. Three-quarters of the audience had never been inside the building before. And they were a demonstrative crowd. "You could see people getting excited when they realized that their story was coming up," Dooley says. According to Eric Burns, "There were laughs, there were groans; people were holding their breath."

The discussion that followed lasted almost as long as the reading. According to Kitchens, "The response to a lot of the humor was fantastic; you could tell that Marcus had done something right." And not just the humor; Dooley thinks the audience appreciated Gardley's handling of "the complexity of how race relations manifest themselves in the neighborhood, how class and race crash into each other. Someone said, 'Thank you for not cutting any corners.'"

But not all of the responses were positive. Kitchens adds diplomatically that "some people got kind of fiery." Although the play has a lyrical quality, and many of the stories are funny or heartening, Gardley has also incorporated the neighborhood's grit. There's a drive-by shooting in the play, a strung-out Vietnam vet, neighbors making no bones about their discomfort with new arrivals. Violence, drugs, class and racial tension: Gardley's script faces the community's challenges squarely, making people uncomfortable. Audience members debated whether it was wise to represent the area as dangerous. Some people felt that the script should focus more on what the neighborhood aspires to than what it currently is; according to Dooley, one person asked, "Sure, that's what's going on, but why do we need to bring that up?"

Not to mention the language itself. As Burns recalls, one woman complained that "all of the curse words took away from her experience. That was when a younger person said 'I could relate because they were talking the way my friends on the street do today.' Another woman said, 'After I started to care about someone, the minute they used a curse word I stopped caring about them.'" If the profanity stirred up the audience, the use of what everyone I spoke to referred to as the N-word caused even more of a stir. "Here you are showing more young black men using the N-word," Dooley recounts one person saying. "Why continue to perpetuate it?" In the play one African American character takes another to task for using the N-word, but not everyone seems to understand Gardley's intent. "The lady who was the most vocal about the use of the N-word," says Burns, "I think when she heard the N-word she shut down, or she would have heard that Marcus was telling the audience that the N-word is not cool. The N-word is very relevant; he's not using it for the sake of using it, like a black comedian just throwing it out there. He's using it to push the story. If you just focus on the N-word, you're missing out on the bigger picture. The story is so much deeper than the N-word."

Burns continues, "Marcus told the audience, 'This play is art and it's a gift to you, to this community, to this city; that's why I'm doing it.'" After the reading Gardley made some changes, although not all the ones folks wanted. "The N-word's not scaled back, but I did scale back the profanity," he says. "It was a distraction. They were so upset about the violence and some of the problems they have in the neighborhood, and they can't talk about it, so they homed in on that. One woman said that is exactly what goes on in the community, 'We just yell at each other because we don't know how to talk about it and we're afraid.'"

N-word or no, the reading ended in a standing ovation.

Obviously Dooley would like it if the play brought more people into his theatre, but his deeper commitment is to becoming a true neighborhood playhouse: "The biggest zip code in our database is South Berkeley." Davidman hopes the play will benefit the community. "Getting people to talk about issues in their own neighborhood is important. There are neighborhood groups and meetings and all kinds of things going on, but coming into a room and trying to put some craft around a story, putting some layers around the history, will hopefully add some depth to that conversation." The actors hope to transform the community, but find the play is transforming them. Kitchens is finding the process "so incredibly satisfying on such a deeper level it makes it hard not to seek that as much as you can. You're doing the art for the art, not for the career, not for the Equity points." Burns sees an opportunity for he and the other African American men in the cast to encourage the cast's teens. "It's not cool to be an actor if you're a young African American man. Are you kidding? It's important that we be working and focused, because they're paying attention. If we don't come correct it might have negative lasting effects on these guys."

While everyone involved enthuses about the production, Burns "hasn't got enough adjectives" for it. "It's an opportunity for South Berkeley to heal from all the drugs, all the afflictions they've been through; it's a chance to celebrate their culture, so rich, so deep in tradition. You have an African American writer, a Jewish director, and an Irish American artistic director and producer. You have minority individuals trying to make good, quality theatre for everyone. With these three guys leading the way it's going to be a project that Shotgun is going to be very proud of and I think we're going to bring a lot of people together with this project. I don't see it any other way."

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