Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Civilians' In the Footprint tries to pack seven years into just 95 minutes; hits and misses, but still memorable, provocative

)In 2008 the first iteration of The Civilians' investigation of the Atlantic Yards conflict, Brooklyn at Eye Level (my review), was billed as a preliminary piece, so it could be forgiven some experiments, including dance numbers and student monologues.

Now, nearly two years later, the final play with music, IN THE FOOTPRINT: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards, has emerged. While it’s an improvement over Brooklyn At Eye Level, and uses the theatrical form creatively in various places, it strains to tell an impossibly sprawling story in a single act.

Still, for anyone interested in Atlantic Yards, it’s entertaining, and should spur further conversation and debate. It’s playing at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene through Dec. 11, with several performances followed by discussions.

So I disagree with the Community Newspaper Group review by "The Butcher of Flatbush Avenue Extension" (aka, almost certainly, Gersh Kuntzman, who was at the show I saw), which criticizes the play as “a series of strident monologues that will leave uninformed theatergoers with more questions about the project than answers.” (See bottom for my disclaimer.)

Creating divisions

Unlike the Butcher, I don’t think “the main point seems to be that the greatest tragedy in the entire saga was that the city’s uniform land-use review procedure was superseded”--though activist Daniel Goldstein does stress the “bypass [of] every available democratic process.” The main point, I think, is how real estate and neighborhood change can leave people bitterly, painfully divided.

Nor are too many monologues strident--in fact, to some degree, characters like City Council Member Letitia James and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Goldstein have their rough edges sanded down.

A larger critique: despite the introduction, though briefly, of characters like Bruce Ratner and Frank Gehry--and via a very clever device--the true powers behind Atlantic Yards still get too little attention from playwright and director Steven Cosson and co-writer Jocelyn Clarke.

Chance for confusion

I do agree that the uninformed theatergoer might be shortchanged. In the Footprint lasts about 95 minutes, and the first 70 minutes take you only to December 2006, three years after the project was announced. That leaves 25 minutes to race through the next four years. Moreover, a good number of characters are either not fully introduced nor their role fully described, fueling confusion.

And, continuing a critique I made in 2008, the fight over Atlantic Yards, which involves such issues as race, class, and the proper way to go about development, does not mesh directly with the other overarching theme of the show: the strains felt by residents over gentrification and the changing nature of the city.

The play likely leaves viewers a more negative than positive impression of Atlantic Yards, with official backers like Borough President Marty Markowitz and developer Ratner portrayed in playfully scornful fashion.

Still, the easiest targets are the white gentrifiers in neighborhoods like Fort Greene, people too clueless to understand which of the sketchy stores is the drug spot. One of the few (early) white gentrifiers who gets to speak doesn't counter by railing about the guys on the corner but offers a helpful explanation of redlining.

(A black character says "Pardon the crackers" but no white character could get away with saying "Pardon the homies," or worse.)

And despite discussion of affordable housing and a prominent role for ACORN President Bertha Lewis, it’s not quite clear whether Atlantic Yards is supposed to solve gentrification, fuel it, or both. Maybe that represents a reasonable spectrum of local opinion--and confusion.

The neighborhood

Nor are terms like “neighborhood” or “community” quite defined.The play closes with the powerful, tuneful, and poignant Neighborhood Song, written and composed by Michael Friedman, perhaps best known for Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, the musical now on Broadway.

I still find the song (embedded further below) touching, even as I recognize it’s not quite coherent, as the cast sings some talismanic terms:
The ghetto Home Depot, Park Slope Co-op, the Target, Cellars Bar, Marcy Projects, the shootings, the hipsters, Spike Lee, Jay-Z, the Time Out article, the day the rents doubled
and then:
These are some things that you could say about the neighborhood
Which neighborhood? Whose neighborhood? It’s a long way from the Park Slope Food Co-op to the Marcy Projects, even though representatives of both met on some highly contested turf during Atlantic Yards public hearings.

Spare setting

With essentially no set but movable props (including actual protest signs) and well-chosen projections of photos (e.g., Freddy’s Bar), logos, and video, the six-person company does a reasonable job of outlining the conflict.

The main element: monologues--sometimes overlapping--by activists Patti Hagan and Goldstein, Council Member James, ACORN's Lewis, and Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD) President James Caldwell (“We don’t normally get the chance to sit at the table”).

Sometimes some more information would be helpful. For example, a footprint resident and regular at Freddy’s goes unnamed, but is clearly--to those of us who’ve followed AY closely--former Dean Street resident David Sheets, a prickly and principled fellow who was an eminent domain plaintiff while enduring significant hardships in his building during project utility work.

(Matthew Dellapina plays him well, starting with the recollection of the project announcement; “Nobody ever asked us anything. Nobody ever asked us shit.”)

Who's pulling the strings?

Missing from the earlier show were any portrayals of those pulling the strings, so In the Footprint makes a welcome change. The opening 12/10/03 press conference--which I described here--supplies a good chunk of the early section of the show, with appearances by Markowitz, Ratner, Jay-Z, and Frank Gehry.

So, how to portray figures that are already well-known? The Civilians came up with an ingenious solution: project a photo on the wall, have an actor off to the side read the words, and have the person stage center represented by an object: in Markowitz’s case, a basketball; in Ratner’s case, a toy crane; in Jay-Z’s case, a Yankees hat; and, in Gehry’s case, a Gehry-esque architectural model. The latter produced numerous guffaws.

What’s there, what’s not

Unfortunately, Ratner does not reappear, nor is there any appearance by FCR point man Jim Stuckey nor Stuckey’s successor, MaryAnne Gilmartin.

(Stuckey's aggressive, disdainful negotiation style is recounted by Jerry Campbell, a homeowner in the footprint who didn't sell and remains, in property scheduled to be condemned in Phase 2. By the way, Campbell, complicating any attempt to generalize about homeowners, is black.)

None of New York State’s three governors (George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson) appear, though the agency they control, the quasi-public Empire State Development Corporation, oversees the project. The only mention of the ESDC comes in a song--a “blogosong,” as noted in the Times--that explains the agency’s history.

Nor are any of the court arguments, or decisions, dramatized, though surely one signal facet of AY is the ritual statement, by judges, that they cannot interfere with a "rational" decision by an agency like the ESDC.

A good amount of useful information does come through. I thought the casual discussion of blight by a footprint resident was pretty effective:
Ratner got some study to prove this area is blighted. Apparently there’s some firm that does this for developers. Like they’ve never NOT found a neighborhood to be blighted. Because that’s one justification the government can use to seize your property through eminent domain. Yeah. This goes back a hundred years to the tenements. Unsanitary slums. Public health risk, etc. I mean you’re not going to get cholera in Prospect Heights.
Realism and surrealism

The play does a good job of conjuring up some of the charged atmosphere of the 8/23/06 public hearing held by the ESDC, using footage from Isabel Hill’s Brooklyn Matters film.

An ineffective hearing officer drones boilerplate as project supporters chant “J-O-B.”

And, as an earnest critic from the Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus attempts to do what the hearing solicited, offer comments on environmental impacts, she is interrupted, by a woman who says, “So I welcome Mr. Ratner to help people that have low income.”

Still, I wondered if that scene would have been enhanced had the characters truly in charge of the project been represented, such as the Ratner crane pulling strings.

Late in the play, some prime characters are thrust together on stage, talking past each other in a debate that never happened, but crystallizes some of the tension.

“But the important thing was we was at the table,” utters Caldwell, in his ungrammatical cadence, a product of the south.

“BUILD? It’s – it’s just a farce!” declares Hagan, who adds, “Ratner’s approach is to divide and conquer.”

“They’ve done nothing for this neighborhood,” counters Lewis, using that magic, ambiguous word.

A bit later in the play, however, The Civilians go for cheap laughs--as they did two years ago--with a “blogger chorus” that takes off from a statement made by a blogger they interviewed: that we work in our pajamas.

I believe that was inspired by Lumi Rolley of No Land Grab, who was working in her pajamas because all her blog work came before her out-of-the-house work shift.

What’s Brooklyn?

Project supporters at the public hearings, as excerpted in the show, are more likely than opponents to claim the allegiance of “Brooklyn.”

But what’s Brooklyn? Well, listen to a clever but frustrating song “Four Brooklyns,” based on an admittedly broad sociological analysis by former City Council Member and unsuccessful Borough President candidate Ken Fisher. (The version from Brooklyn At Eye Level is below.)



The statement delineates “Manhattan,” the mostly middle- and upper-class band from Greenpoint to Red Hook; “the Caribbean,” the arc stretching east from Crown Heights; “Florida,” the mostly white precincts of southern/southeast Brooklyn; and “the Mediterranean,” which somehow encompasses districts as disparate as Bushwick and Bay Ridge.

Um, where’s Chinese Sunset Park?

More importantly, the map projected on the wall betrayed a key lacuna in the analysis: Bedford-Stuyvesant, the largest African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn.

But maybe the point, I thought later, was that it had not been time for Fisher, a savvy land-use lawyer and well-connected pol, to have won the Borough Presidency. Brooklyn voted for a cheerleader, a mascot, and we've had Markowitz for three terms.

A more subtle borough analysis--sure, too subtle for such a sprawling play--would go beyond the "Four Brooklyns” to point out that Prospect Heights represents a transition zone susceptible to gentrification, as suggested by Brooklyn College sociologist Aviva Zeltzer-Zubida, given areas of poverty nudging up against areas of wealth.

In closing

In Brooklyn At Eye Level, the closing version of “The Neighborhood Song” struck me as a flat-out rejection of Atlantic Yards:
You are only entitled to the space that you have
You are not entitled to the space that's all around you.
(The earlier version is below.)



In the new play, it’s a bit more ambiguous. After all, earlier in the play, the line is uttered by a project supporter who’s fine with the arena and wishes to quiet project critics: “Well, you just get over it.”

Yes, the closing line comes off more as a criticism of Atlantic Yards. But it is sung by the excellent Billy Eugene Jones, who plays multiple characters, most prominently BUILD’s Caldwell.

No, Jones is not portraying anyone in the final song, but the Caldwell image lingers, adding a layer of complexity and serving as a take-off for discussion.

The need for an epilogue

In a brief scene on the way to the Court of Appeals, one character, describing the surprise entrance of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov as Nets owner and arena co-owner, "Just when you think it can’t get any weirder, it does."

And it gets weirder still, if you consider the dissolution of ACORN, with Forest City Ratner as the largest single debtor, and the developer's astonishing attempt, still in process, to raise $249 million from Chinese investors seeking green cards.

Who’s convincing?

Because In the Footprint is more about characters than conclusions, I’ll suggest that not every self-serving statement is equally convincing.

At one point, James describes how she gets people to come around:
When I tell them that right now the focus is primarily on the arena and not on the affordable housing. When I tell them that in the long run, their grandchildren will be paying for this because of all of the expenses related to this project.
By contrast, Lewis, who can’t resist some swipes at James, says:
Now here’s the thing with the CBA. Now I don’t need no politician to make my stuff tight cause I know how to guarantee my stuff.
That’s nonsense. Forest City Ratner got contractual terms that allow for extensions based on affordable housing subsidy unavailability. A good chunk of the subsidized housing would be unaffordable to ACORN members.

And still, last year, ACORN brought members--working-class people who have a legitimate need for better housing--to testify in favor of the project. And they were sadly misinformed.

Disclaimer and note

I am thanked in the program. I was asked, as a volunteer, to review the script earlier this month. I caught a few minor factual errors, such as names that needed tweaks, but did not have input into the overall script. Also, in my capacity as a tour guide, I gave a for-pay tour of the project/neighborhood to a videographer for the show. I did not get press tickets.

The play officially opens next Monday. While I initially planned to hold my review, another review is already out there.

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