The Huntington revisits Boston’s bus and segregation issues through powerful “Common Ground Revisited”

Breathing new life into an award-winning classic tale can be tricky. But famed local playwright Kirsten Greenidge’s approach to revisiting real families and the turbulent tone of Boston in the 1960s and 1970s detailed in J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families” in 1986 is provocative and powerful. The world premiere of The Huntington Theater Company’s “Common Ground Revisited,” crafted by award winners Obie Greenidge and Melia Bensussen, delves into Lukas’ Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative through the perspectives of a current school. (The production runs until July 3 at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Wimberly Theatre.)

In a gray-walled classroom with an American flag, students dissect Lukas’ book centered on the lives of the Diverse, white professionals who, for a time, lived in the South End; the Twymons, a black family living in an ungentrified part of the South End; and the Irish working-class McGoffs in Charlestown. The production benefits from an exemplary ensemble that includes such talented local artists as Marianna Bassham, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Karen MacDonald and Elle Borders. The actors contributed to the development of the work through workshops and readings and by proposing their own stories, some of which were incorporated into the script.

The assemblage of comedians shines a light on the nation’s racial climate through dialogue about the Civil Rights Movement, the murder of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., complemented by powerful imagery. There were biting moments when mom, Rachel Tymon (Shannon Lamb), tries to instill the importance of education in her daughter Cassandra (Borders), who struggles with the constant taunts at Charlestown High, and when Alice McGoff (Amanda Collins) learns that her daughter Lisa (Bassham) has decided to stop protesting desegregation and instead wants to unite the students at her school.

Omar Robinson, Elle Borders, Amanda Collins, Marianna Basham and Stacy Fischer in “Common Ground Revisited”. (Courtesy of T Charles Erickson)

Under Bensussen’s harmonious direction, the ensemble members play multiple characters and move clearly from past to present. Neighborhood icons like activists Mel King on the left and Louise Day Hicks on the right, who led the group Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR), take their respective positions.

Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered the desegregation of schools on June 21, 1974. He aspired to make quality education accessible to all. It hasn’t been easy and the opponents of the bus have fought tooth and nail to keep things as they were. Protests and violence erupted across the city, affecting every family in the book and on stage.

“It’s an essential dip in Boston’s past that makes you think about how much the city has changed and how much it’s stayed the same.”

Despite this brave effort to desegregate the schools, more than 40 years later, segregation in the city persists. In 2018, reported that “more than half of Boston’s public schools are deeply segregated, more than in 1965; in many schools, more than ninety percent of enrolled students are college students. color.” A 2020 report found that the top performing schools were made up mostly of white and Asian students.

“It’s in the DNA,” says one character of Charlestown’s fierce sense of community. Segregation is also ingrained in the DNA of Boston (and many other American cities), it seems. Many studies show that the health, safety, education, and wealth of Bostonians vary significantly by ZIP code. In the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s 2015 “Color of Wealth” study, researchers found that black and Dominican households had median wealth close to zero, and black Caribbeans had a net worth of 5% of white households. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight series revealed many disparities, including the fact that “nearly three out of four people in the Boston metro area are white, a higher proportion than in any other metro area in the nation’s top 10”, that people with black-sounding names were more likely to be ignored by landlords and that health care is also separated.

The cast of "Common Ground Revisited"  a world premiere by the Huntington Theater Company.  (Courtesy of T Charles Erickson)
The cast of ‘Common Ground Revisited’, a world premiere by the Huntington Theater Company. (Courtesy of T Charles Erickson)

These kinds of statistics and stories of disparity are nothing new. And “Common Ground Revisited” doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. The prolific Greenidge, who teamed up with Bensussen for “Luck of the Irish” in 2012, recently saw the premiere of her epic family piece, “Our Daughters, Like Pillars.” In “Common Ground Revisited”, Greenidge once again focuses on families and shows the audience not just what these families think, but why. It’s an essential dip into Boston’s past that makes you think about how much the city has changed and how much it’s stayed the same, though at two hours and thirty minutes it seems a bit long.

And with such looming evils as racism and segregation, Greenidge isn’t trying to offer a solution. As one character cleverly puts it, trying to find a truth for everyone would be the greatest Big Dig ever. What it does do is offer a series of alternate endings reminiscent of the Choose Your Own books ending. Here, modern characters offer the audience the chance to decide how they want to see the world and how they might change it.

The world premiere of “Common Ground Revisited” by the Huntington Theater Company is taking place at Calderwood’s Wimberly Theater until July 3.

Comments are closed.