South Side Story

Profiling your own neighborhood onstage is more challenging, and potentially risky, than it might seem.

If South Berkeley sometimes feels a disconnect with the rest of town, it’s hardly surprising. When Berkeley first incorporated in 1878, it ran south only as far as Derby Street. What’s now South Berkeley was then a separate community called Lorin, which Berkeley annexed fourteen years later. Lorin has been defined by conflict ever since the Spanish pushed aside the Ohlone in the 1700s. It has changed complexions many times: Its heavily Japanese population was sent to internment camps in the 1940s, to be replaced by Southern blacks who came West for military service or shipyard work and bought property where they could. The district’s abandoned white churches soon filled with black parishioners. In 1943, its South Berkeley Community Church became the first integrated congregation in the region, and possibly the state.

At that time, the Lorin district was a destination, with movie theaters, big-band nightspots, banks, and record stores. Since then it’s been one damn thing after another: 1960s upheaval; the crack epidemic and flight of chain businesses; struggle for a full-service supermarket; and contemporary tensions over crime and drugs, perceived gentrification, and development at Ashby BART.

When Shotgun Players moved into a former church at the corner of Ashby Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in 2004, the first thing the long-nomadic theater company did was try to introduce itself, putting fliers on doorknobs and hosting open houses and free performances. But that led nowhere. “At one open house a guy walked up: ‘You kicked my grandmother out of her church,'” founder and artistic director Patrick Dooley recalls. “That’s one of the things that came up at a company meeting: This is not working. It feels like an us/them thing here and that ain’t right. How can we make it us/us?”

Their answer was to stage a play that incorporates the neighborhood’s own stories and residents. Traveling Jewish Theatre artistic director Aaron Davidman suggested the idea to Dooley two years ago. “We were both like, ‘That’s it!'” Davidman says. “Get to know the community and let the community get to know the company.”

Both men had connections to the area; Davidman previously lived on Woolsey, and Dooley currently lives near his own theater. He first really got to know the area eight or nine years ago when the fire department nixed a Shotgun show at an nearby print shop, and the players instead found themselves performing at South Berkeley Community Church. “The pastor there said, ‘Before we do this play, you have to walk around with me to the neighbors and make sure it’s okay,'” Dooley recalls. “The first thing I noticed was these beautiful old homes right next to some Section 8 homes. And the neighbors themselves — I remember feeling it was like a Benetton ad.”

Dooley recruited Brooklyn-based playwright Marcus Gardley, who grew up in West Oakland and spent a lot of time at his uncle’s house in South Berkeley as a child. For a model for The Lorin District Project (the play’s working title), Shotgun looked to Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theater Company, which creates community-based theater pieces such as an adaptation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, called Steelbound, in a shuttered steel plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Dozens of laid-off steelworkers were included as cast members.

About nine months ago, the collaborators began organizing powwows with groups of residents and encouraging them to share their tales and concerns. “The story circles were originally about just gathering information so he [Gardley] could have raw material to write the play,” Dooley says. “But there’s a second purpose to them, which is really to build relationships.”

The story circles have continued throughout the play’s creation. Teams of Shotgun core artists were dispatched for sessions with senior centers, alumni associations, schools, Black Panthers, Japanese Americans, and others. “It just confirmed that everybody has a story to tell,” Shotgun member Daniel Bruno says. “The story circle starts out with everybody saying, ‘Well, I don’t have a story. I just live here.’ Then there’s a pause, and then they’ll say something like, ‘Well, you should talk to so-and-so, because they’ve lived here a long time. In fact, I remember this one time …’ And then they’ll go on for half an hour.”

In one instance, Bruno and actress Nicole Julien met with a neighborhood watch group involved in a lawsuit against homeowner Lenora Moore that alleges she has let her children and grandchildren turn her Oregon Street house into a drug hotspot. That group was particularly interested in knowing who else Shotgun was talking to, Julien says, which highlights a basic truth: A community’s stories often contradict one another. For instance, Gardley says, “A lot of people who live in that neighborhood say the Japanese weren’t ever interned from that neighborhood, they didn’t live in that neighborhood, which is of course not true.”

The actors sent their notes and cassettes to the playwright, whose strategy is to skim them for general themes, issues, and settings, rather than for specific personal stories. “I want to respect people and be honest about what they’re saying, but I don’t want to point fingers,” he says.

One of the participants reminded Julien of a character already in the play, but odds are she’s already been cut. Gardley’s latest version contains almost nothing from the previous one. “I was like, ‘What happened to the other play?'” Dooley says. “And he goes, ‘I have to get everything out, and then I can actually write the play: Write the play I don’t want to do and then write the play I do want to do.’ He’s got this incredible blend of, like, hip-hop and magic realism and docudrama and agitprop. He’s bringing in stuff from Ohlone Indians and Japanese families who lived here, and stuff from the ’80s and stuff that’s happening right now, and named all the characters after streets in South Berkeley.”

On June 7, Gardley began a monthlong residency at Shotgun, which allows the playwright and his collaborators to work more closely. A public workshop reading is planned for July 1, and then it’s time to whip the script into shape for the September 28 opening.

Rather than perform, some of the core artists will likely serve as acting coaches. “We didn’t really talk about bringing people into the show when we were talking to them, because we didn’t want people to feel they were auditioning,” Dooley says. “But we have been meeting some really interesting characters along the way, and finding out things about them, like ‘Oh, yeah, I play in the church choir’ or ‘I used to do drama back in high school forty years ago.’ And kind of making mental notes, like: ‘Must speak to this person.'”

If this project is a huge undertaking, it’s also a high-stakes one. Everyone involved talks about its potential to promote goodwill, but it’s Dooley’s job to think about how things could backfire. “We have 29 years on our mortgage — what if it’s a disaster: ‘That’s what you have to say about us?'” the director frets. “We were all so excited about it at first, and then the responsibility of it started to set in, and we were getting terrified. We realized that having it not be good was just not an option.”

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