Theatre in Review: In the Footprint (The Civilians at Irondale Center)
The battle over the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn provides the gripping and timely subject matter for In the Footprint, the latest effort from The Civilians. The troupe has long demonstrated its skill at this kind of documentary theatre, but In the Footprint is especially likely to be a conversation starter for New York audiences. It's one thing to see This Beautiful City, in which The Civilians explored the somewhat exotic contours of life in Colorado Springs, America's top evangelical city; it's another thing entirely to explore the details of New York's most controversial development -- while sitting in a theatre only a few blocks from the contested site.
As originally designed by Frank Gehry, Atlantic Yards was a mixed-use development in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn that included a couple of skyscrapers, a substantial number of apartments, and a stadium that would house the New York Nets -- the new name for the relocated New Jersey Nets. Depending on your point of view, it was either a stunning design achievement that would revivify the city's troubled economy or a social and aesthetic horror that was completely out of synch with the neighborhood's scale, and which would displace hundreds of long-time Brooklynites, most of them poor, while clogging the streets with traffic. The Civilians lean toward the latter view, and don't mind giving their opponents the opportunity to hang themselves with their own words.
Thus, Steven Cosson's script produces Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn's borough president, who announces, repetitively, "Brooklyn is a world-class city and it deserves a world-class team playing in a world-class arena designed by a world-class architect." That would be Gehry, who, puffed up with fatuous pride, announces that one skyscraper is named "Miss Brooklyn," and adds, "The tower to her right is her husband, and the second shiny one to the left is the one she will have an affair with." He waves away the subject of neighborhood opposition, chuckling, "People aren't riding around on horseback anymore. These protestors should have been picketing Henry Ford." Also trotted out is Mayor Bloomberg, who, in a sentence construction worthy of George W. Bush, announces, "Brooklyn belongs on the sports pages of the newspapers, and if it's on the sports pages, it's less likely to be in the other pages that are less desirable." And, to demonstrate his idea of street cred, he adds, "And what's more, Brooklyn is a veritable hotbed of hoops."
Making the situation especially ticklish is the fact that much of the community response to the project split along broadly racial lines. Organizations such as ACORN and BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Land Development) were eager to play ball with Forest City Ratner, the developer, in order to guarantee low-income housing and jobs for the locals. The opposition was mostly led by middle-class whites who had moved to the borough seeking a better quality of life. The developers were skilled at exploiting this division, painting it as a war between the working-class poor and the gentrification set.
Then again, one of the joys of a Civilians production is how all sorts of feisty, gabby characters get to weigh in with unclassifiable points of view. Jerry Campbell, a well-off black professional, recalls how he turned the tables on a Forest City Ratner representative who makes a low-ball offer for his house. Ken Fisher, a failed candidate for borough president, delivers a song that amusingly anatomizes Brooklyn into four distinct cities (Manhattan, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and Florida). Jonathan Lethem, the novelist, comments on the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers, an event that left a still-painful wound in the city's collective psyche. We even meet a security guard who refuses tell his story ("I seen this neighborhood go from white to black to everything, and now back to white again.") unless somebody coughs up some cold, hard cash.
Providing a sense of continuity are several prominent characters. Patti Hagan is one of the most furious leaders of the opposition. ("Ratner's approach is to divide and conquer.") Daniel Goldstein and his wife, Shabnam, end up the only holdouts in their co-op after everyone else has taken a buyout. ("So one day, I woke up and I'm a tenant of the state.") James Caldwell, from BUILD, feels the pain of community opposition. ("The people from the opposition were calling us plantation Negroes.") And Bertha Lewis, from ACORN, doesn't mince words when identifying who she sees as her real enemies. ("I got gentrifiers, namely you, who don't give a damn about this neighborhood. You don't give a damn about the poor people. You don't have a housing problem, you don't have a jobs problem, you don't have your brothers and sisters and uncles coming out of jail not being able to have anything. It's just 'Don't touch my bucolic neighborhood. I want my low-rise Park Slope and my brownstone belt.'")
Throwing a wrench into the situation is the economic crash of 2008, which alters the project beyond recognition, causing Gehry to exit and most of the supposed community benefits to vanish. Interestingly, neither Caldwell nor Lewis are heard from after everything they fought for has gone away. (We don't get to hear how the noted architect feels about his ouster, either.) Still, by giving voice to so many, The Civilians find considerable drama in a situation that continues to reverberate throughout the city todayy.
Cosson's staging sends the members of his company all over both levels of the Irondale Center space, delivering opinions from every possible angle. The standouts in the highly adept cast are Donnetta Lavinia Grays as Bertha Lewis, furiously denouncing anyone who stands in her way; Greg McFadden as Daniel Goldstein, who sadly and sardonically watches his friends sell out; Simone Moore as Tish James, a city council member whose opposition to the project leaves her on the outside; and Colleen Werthman as Patti Hagan, the most experienced and wiliest member of the anti-Atlantic Yards contingent.
Cosson has also seen to it that In the Footprint has a simple, unfussy production design. Andromache Chalfant's scenic is, essentially, a ground plan that helps keep the action moving at a rapid clip. Lucrecia Briceņo's lighting skillfully redirects one's attention all over the room. Chloe Chapin's costumes give each character a simple signature look, helping us keep track of who is who. Shane Rettig's sound design provides solid reinforcement -- in a not very acoustically friendly space -- for the musical numbers, by Michael Friedman. The most interesting aspect of the design is Jeanette Yew's projections -- of Prospect Heights residents, architect's drawings, and municipal maps, along with bits of local television broadcasts.
As so often happens with widely touted municipal development projects, all the promises are left behind, leaving behind plenty of dissatisfaction on all sides. Indeed, the end is something of a question mark, with everyone wondering what will happen next. The final number repeats a thought that is heard more than once in the text: "You are only entitled to the space that you have/You are not entitled to the space that's all around you." It's a chilling thought, reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher's comment, "There is no such thing as society." As In the Footprint makes only too clear, it's very easy to cloak greed in the guise of the common good.--David Barbour