By Jacqueline Houton
Common Ground Revisited is valuable because it infuses theatrical life into J. Anthony Lukas’s book, but it doesn’t offer any easy answers. The play fills in the fine details, deepening our understanding of how we got here and how far we have to go.
Common Ground Revisited, conceived by Melia Bensussen and Kirsten Greenidge. Adapted by Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by Melia Bensussen. Based in part on and inspired by the book Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Wimberly Theatre at the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., Boston, through July 3 and viewable digitally through July 17.
Adapting a nearly 700-page work of nonfiction for the stage is no small feat. “It is long, y’all,” admits an actor clutching J. Anthony Lukas’s 1985 Pulitzer-winning book, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, a seminal account of Boston’s busing crisis that one writer dubbed “the Bible” for a generation of journalists. Now the venerable tome has inspired Common Ground Revisited, a new play conceived by award-winning playwright Kirsten Greenidge and director Melia Bensussen. It’s a show that covers a lot of ground and makes the dynamics of a 50-year-old conflict feel all too timely.
The action begins with a fraught exchange between two Charlestown High classmates, Lisa McGoff and Cassandra Twymon. The teens do, in fact, share some things in common — both have lived in public housing and come from big working-class families headed by mothers — but Lisa has until recently been an enthusiastic participant in antibusing demonstrations, while Cassandra has become a target for hissed epithets and hurled rocks. The strained encounter is cut short by a voice that suddenly halts the action — we soon realize that we’re not in a high school hallway or in the ’70s at all. The two women portraying Cassandra and Lisa have come together with 10 other Bostonians to wrestle with the text of Common Ground. From the American flag, steel-legged chairs, and world map in Sara Brown’s spare but versatile set, I assumed they were educators gathered in a contemporary classroom. But perhaps they’re students themselves; I later learned the play grew out of a 2011 performing arts class on adaptation that Greenidge and Bensussen co-taught at Emerson College. Greenidge has also incorporated some of this production’s cast members’ personal experiences into the script. In character, the dozen actors reflect on their relationships with Boston and the city’s myriad identities. Some were born and raised here; others are transplants who came for college. “Boston is where you go to get smart” — or “smaht,” one says. It’s famously a city of neighborhoods: “Three blocks one way, three blocks the other, you’re in a different country.” And it’s a city with a reputation for racism. One speaker shares that her family was wary of her moving here to attend Harvard because of a great-grandfather who’d been run out of town. Another simply declares, “Busing defines this town.”
The framing device offers flexibility, allowing the ensemble to deliver fact-filled exposition and talk back to the text — critiquing Common Ground for its emphasis on white resistance over Black organizing, for instance — while taking on multiple roles as they work through the stories of the three titular families. There are the Yankee Divers, Colin and Joan, who move from Cambridge to a just-starting-to-gentrify South End. (“It’s all abandoned buildings and rooming houses!” Joan Diver initially protests, earning laughs from the crowd at the Calderwood Pavilion.) Full of idealism, the couple hopes to help improve the city: Joan works for a nonprofit while fresh-from-Harvard Colin turns down a high-paying job at a law firm to join Mayor Kevin White’s administration. They enroll their son in the Bancroft, an experimental, integrated new school in the South End — but when he’s assigned to be bused to another school instead of the one they’ve helped shape, they’re willing to pull strings to “correct this mistake.”
Then there’s the Black Twymon family in Roxbury, where matriarch Rachel Twymon (Shannon Lamb in a moving performance) battles lupus while struggling to keep a small business afloat and raising six kids. She tries to convince her daughters Rachel and Cassandra that education is paramount, a tough sell when they’re being bused to a school where white students block the stairwells to trap their Black classmates — and when the younger Rachel is still reeling from being forced to give up her son for adoption after being sexually assaulted at age 12. And there are the McGoffs in Charlestown, where Alice, widowed in her 30s with seven kids, is adamant that “plenty of people have it rough.” She becomes a leader in the antibusing group Powder Keg, which mimics the tactics of the Civil Rights movement, Hail Marying at pray-ins and at one point even singing the opening bars of “We Shall Overcome,” until Alice admits to her friend, “I don’t think we know the words to this, Pat!” Her daughter Lisa becomes active in the movement, too, but eventually begins to doubt. Elected class president, she makes gestures toward unity that for many of her classmates must feel like far too little too late.
The ensemble embodies a host of other figures who have an impact on the three families. We hear city councilman Tom Atkins urging Mayor White to pay to facilitate a free live broadcast of James Brown’s Boston Garden concert the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination, helping Boston avoid casualties as unrest roils cities around the country. We listen to loathsome Boston School Committee chair Louise Day Hicks (a spot-on Karen MacDonald) repeating her trademark dog whistle, “You know where I stand,” and see her challenged by Civil Rights activist Ruth Batson. We hear the order mandating the rebalancing of any Boston school with more than 50 percent nonwhite students straight from Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s mouth. And we see lawyer Ted Landsmark assaulted with a flag pole on City Hall Plaza, a moment immortalized in Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer-winning photo The Soiling of Old Glory — and, more importantly, we hear Landsmark’s own insights from his hospital bed.
In short, the play packs a huge amount of history into two and a half hours. That it almost never drags is a testament to Greenidge’s script, the strong cast, and Bensussen’s staging, in which movement lends momentum even in moments of exposition. I did wonder if perhaps a scene or two from the past might have been cut in favor of a little more present-day perspective, but the continued relevance of these stories is clear. When Lisa, exhilarated from a protest, exclaims, “We’re like American revolutionaries!,” it’s hard not to think of the deluded insurrectionists of January 6. Across the country, school board meetings are once again battlegrounds. And Boston’s public schools are more segregated today than they were 20 years ago. For all its influence, I suspect most Bostonians under 40 are unfamiliar with Common Ground. Many only know the broad strokes of the conflict. The script and staging is valuable because it infuses new theatrical life into J. Anthony Lukas’s book, but the production doesn’t offer any easy answers. The play fills in the fine details, deepening our understanding of how we got here and how far we have to go.
Jacqueline Houton currently copyedits kids’ and YA books by day and serves as senior editor at Boston Art Review. She is a former editor of the Improper Bostonian and former managing editor of the Phoenix and STUFF magazine (RIP x3). Her writing has appeared in Big Red & Shiny, Bitch magazine, Boston magazine, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Pangyrus, Publishers Weekly, and other publications.
Joan Lancourt says
I think Jacqueline Houton hit the nail on the head when she says “a scene or two from the past might have been cut in favor of a little more present-day perspective . . .”, in fact, for me, it should have been more than a scene or two; and I certainly agree that the production doesn’t offer any easy answers. From my perspective, the problem with Common Ground Revisited is that it’s not asking the right questions.To simply put the book on stage (and admittedly, doing that was not a ‘simple’ task) and to ignore the over arching question facing us today – Have we learned anything from the incidents and experience chronicled in Common Ground that can help us dig ourselves out of the current racial mess we’re in, and if so what? – feels like a real cop-out.
Some years ago, a community group of color tried to answer that question by interviewing some of the people who had been part of that unfolding disaster, only to discover that numerous participants from South Boston were still, 50 years later, unwilling to be interviewed, and that for many of the children of color (now adults) who had been bussed, the trauma experienced 50 years ago was still a raw unhealed wound – something so ugly and painful many never spoke of it to their children. Why wasn’t that part of the current frame rather than the glib ‘Boston has a reputation as a racist city’?
Common Ground Revisited has been 10 years in the making so there’s been plenty of time for Ms. Greenidge and the many others involved in bringing this to the stage to develop a more substantial framing device; to dig deeper into the ‘Bible’ and the human experiences it chronicles and come up with some questions aimed at reframing the tragedy of racism – a tragedy that is, as you read this, in the process of fanning the flames of its evil.
I was also dismayed at the reverence accorded the book. To call it the ‘Bible’ suggests a level of insight it does not begin to possess. Common Ground is one book, out of hundreds that have told the tale of Boston’s bussing fiasco, admittedly from an interesting and useful perspective – but to hold it up as ‘THE’ book to guide and lead us to the Promised Land accords it a status it does not deserve. We need to shine the light in many different corners of darkness in order to figure out a path forward.
Houton and Greenidge are right, of course – there are no easy answers, but if there is no urgency to framing the important questions, our democracy may very well not survive. At the very least, here are some questions the play should have posed and explored – big questions like:
“How could we have gotten it so wrong?” “What have we learned from Boston’s bussing experience?” “What do we understand now that we didn’t understand then?” And, “Were there alternatives that might have enabled a more positive outcome?”
And more specific questions like:
“How could anyone (the judge, the school administration, etc.) have imagined that such tension-filled day-to-day issues could be successfully addressed by teachers, students and parents without any on-going support from a range of professionals with the skills and training to manage major systemic and cultural change?” Or, “What must we do now to help heal the trauma people experienced?” Had these questions been part of the ‘current framing device’, they could have been used by the cast to ‘talk back to and interrogate the text,’ and to pose pointed questions for the audience to ponder after they left the theater.
My disappointment was made even more intense because I believe theater is the ideal medium through which a democratic society is able to wrestle with its demons. The theater, after all, was where the men of Athens went to wrestle with their social issues. Theater can touch an audience at a deep emotional level, it can challenge an audience intellectually, and it can literally show an audience that they are not struggling alone: in essence, it offers the potential for a step toward deeper understanding, toward commitment, and a collective step toward social justice on one of the two or three most pressing issues of the 21st century. And key to theater playing so essential a role is not necessarily the answers it provides, but the questions it insists the audience consider. In that regard, for me, Common Ground Revisited – for all its excellent acting, and fast-paced direction – was a missed opportunity.
Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse says
Just wanted to add my assent to this wise statement:
Our theaters are turning their backs on the power of stage to challenge audiences because they are obsessed with Broadway/off-Broadway’s mantra of cantering to their privileged patrons/tourists rather than disturbing them. Given the growing evidence of the rise of fascism in America — the end of Roe, our weak response to the climate crisis, the threat to the future of democracy — this indifference to a world and its pain will become harder and harder to maintain without lapsing into absurdity. I think we are already there and then some.
We can’t look to our critics, who are failing themselves and our theaters. They are cheerleaders for the status quo. It is up to concerned audiences to demand that Boston theaters deal with the present — with the greed, apathy, and stupidity of today — rather than safely condemn past sins. If they don’t, our companies will remain in their entertainment bubbles and become irrelevant.
Jeff Leach says
Agreed, and I would extend Mr. Marx’s criticism to high school arts departments, which too often turn to popular fare such as the Broadway classics, High School Musical, Frozen and the like. There are plenty of productions which are entertaining, challenging, and educational. We need school performing arts departments and local theater to step up and stop ignoring the outside world of today. Art is supposed to be provocative.