A Lesson in Urban Planning

Leaving Irondale Theatre after viewing the Civilians’ In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, I felt like I just left a dinner party where I was the only one who didn’t know anything about the major topic of conversation. Therefore I had to sit for several hours and quietly sip my wine, watching jargon fly and faces redden, feeling confused and tired, unable to develop an opinion and needing an aspirin. The difference being, in In the Footprint , they argue to song, and I get no wine. The production’s press release states that “ In the Footprint is inspired by interviews conducted by The Civilians with real-life players in the years-long controversy about the Atlantic Yards Project, which will bring high-rise housing and a basketball arena to the rail yards in downtown Brooklyn.” (For more information on the controversy, go here: wikipedia.org/Atlantic_Yards .) The company attempts to tackle the issue thoroughly and fairly, and more or less does so. However, it fails to stir me: after the final bows, I am not sure what I think about the issue, and more importantly, why I should care.

The style of the play is documentary theater reminiscent of Anna Deveare Smith’s one woman shows, performed by an ensemble of six. The majority of the piece is comprised of monologues taken from interviews conducted by The Civilians over the course of two years. The set is barebones, and extensive video projection is used throughout, not unlike a trumped-up classroom presentation.

Interspersed throughout the play are musical numbers, composed by Michael Friedman in contemporary Broadway style. They don’t appear enough to call the piece a musical (they term it “a play with music”) and are used primarily as tools a la School House Rock, to introduce names of organizations or eminent domain-related terms. The style and music operate to alienate the audience from the material, so that they may analyze it objectively. Because of this, I get no sense of the community the story is about (Prospect Heights), and why I should care about its possible demise. What does Prospect Heights look like? Feel like? Sound like? Certainly not a Broadway musical.

However, there are upsides to this alienation effect. One benefit of being disconnected from the piece is that I get to admire the actors’ work. I love watching talented actors play multiple roles well, and these actors certainly excel at it. I actually didn’t realize there are only six actors in the cast: there were so many varied characters, I thought the ensemble numbered at least eight.

Matthew Dellapina and Donnetta Lavinia Grays deliver particularly standout performances. Their portrayals of community members and activists provide me with a few brief moments of empathy. Grays is one of those actors who can enthrall while doing nothing more than standing still, listening, in character. What a treat to get to watch her do so.

Another treat occurs about two thirds into In the Footprint . Here, the structure of the play breaks and instead of speaking one at a time to the audience, various characters come together and argue with one another face to face. All of the major ideological and racial tensions surface in an explosion of finger pointing and heated words. One realizes how complex this issue really is, stemming from highly contentious issues: gentrification, racial inequality, and real, deep seated anger. For a moment, the play strikes a chord: one understands the situation as indicative of issues bigger than Atlantic Yards and more painful than housing relocation.

In my opinion, that chord is not struck nearly enough. The press release claims that “ In the Footprint is an examination of how the fate of the city and its dwellers is decided in present-day New York and what might be learned from this ongoing epic of politics, money, and the places we call home.” But what might be learned remains unclear to me. Further, I am not moved to care enough about this event to try to figure it out. In the Footprint is an informative piece of theater that teaches us about the Atlantic Yards controversy, but does not show us the neighborhood it affects, its sounds and sights, and its unique flavor that the project is ostensibly destroying. It gives us a situation that is more or less over and leaves us puzzling over what to do with it. If you are particularly interested in and knowledgable about this issue, it may be worth your while. Otherwise, it’s just too much of a headache.

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