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Community theater worth watching

In the past, the expression "community theater" pretty much meant one thing to me: endless church-hall productions of Annie Get Your Gun starring the local dentist and his wife. Though the role amateur dramatics plays in communities — providing an outlet for artistic energy, bringing people together, raising money to fund Grandma Brown's hip replacement, etc. — is doubtless positive, its general lack of quality has led me to turn my patronizing theater critic's nose up at these well-intentioned stabs at creativity. What, me review a production of Charley's Aunt at St. Timothy's Episcopal in Danville? I don't think so.

Despite my disdain, I've come to realize that community theater doesn't always mean a group of rank amateurs staging old chestnuts. As Shotgun Players' Love Is a Dream House in Lorin and other community-based projects (like the work of Los Angeles' Cornerstone Theater Company) prove, "community" can apply equally to productions — professional or otherwise — that create an intimate relationship between a particular group of people and their environment.

Telling the story of the South Berkeley district that Shotgun Players calls home through interspersed narratives and song, Lorin attempts to capture the spirit of the neighborhood from the time of the earliest Native American settlers to today's diverse class and ethnic mix. Weaving together a script culled from interviews with community members and archival materials from the local library, East Bay native turned award-winning playwright Marcus Gardley builds a behemoth: Over the course of nearly three hours, a mammoth cast of 30 — half professional actors, half Berkeley-based amateurs — embodies a wide range of characters on Shotgun Players' modest little stage (transformed for the occasion by Lisa Clark into the skeletal framework of a dilapidated Victorian fixer-upper). Present-day Lorin residents such as a widowed single mom, an avuncular old mystic, and the local pastor rub shoulders with previous generations of South BerkeleyÐites like a Japanese couple sent to an internment camp in the 1940s, a wealthy Victorian landowner, and a bunch of 18th-century Franciscan monks. There are plenty of figurative characters, too, from the ghost of a man killed in a drive-by shooting to an Ohlone Indian to the Native American trickster spirit Coyote. Oh, and Jesus.

Welcome to the Neighborhood: David Stewart as Russell Wheeler and Emily Rosenthal as his Jewish wife, Adeline.
Benjamin Privitt
Welcome to the Neighborhood: David Stewart as Russell Wheeler and Emily Rosenthal as his Jewish wife, Adeline.

If the above description brings unsavory flashbacks of Waiting for Guffmanto mind, don't be put off. That Gardley play (made into Christopher Guest's 1997 "mockumentary" film) — concerning a bunch of star-struck, talentless provincial types who stage a musical about the history of their home town of Blaine, Mo. — shares nothing in common with Lorinexcept amateur actors employed to bring their local narratives to life.

Indeed, the quality of the talent is one of the most impressive things about Shotgun's epic community endeavor. Director Aaron Davidman coaxes focused, fluent performances from all the cast members, whether they're seasoned professionals, occasional thespians, or complete neophytes. Among the stage stalwarts, David Stewart and Allison L. Payne are particularly engrossing to watch. Stewart creates an intense, loving portrayal of Russell Wheeler, a young, ill-fated black man who moves into the neighborhood in the 1980s with his white Jewish wife Adeline. And Payne's Milvia Wash, a gutsy housewife who — in the playwright's words — "trudged her rump all the way from Crowville, Wee'siana, in 1943 with one suitcase and a Bible," allows the actor to match the levels of sensitivity and strength she brought to Cutting Ball's recent production of Suzan-Lori Parks' The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.

The less experienced actors are no less accomplished. Jeannette DesBoine ("a writer and arts advocate" by day, according to the program notes) gives a bighearted, Whoopi GoldbergÐesque performance as Lorin's resident eccentric, Aunt Woolsey. Bustling about the stage, her salt-and-pepper dreadlocks swishing like Medusa's snakes to the rhythms of her character's fittingly fork-tongued speech, DesBoine is larger than life yet utterly human. Community member Sterling Hiroshi Greene is similarly affecting as the careworn but optimistic Japanese immigrant, Sun McGee.

The onstage talent doesn't stop at acting; the performers also sing. Molly Holm's eclectic mix of a capella choral compositions (which range from Negro spirituals and Native AmericanÐinspired chants to scat and a barbershop "Chattanooga Choo Choo") is densely structured, weaving soaring melodies and striding basslines with rough harmonies. The cast performs every note with passion and precision, and each syllable rings clear. The sense of ensemble is so strong in these musical passages that it resonates at a deeper level, suggesting a close-knit community living in a state of essential togetherness.

It's just as well that this optimism exists subliminally, for on the surface, Lorin's story is one of discord. The strength of Gardley's writing lies in his ability to splice together numerous tales of conflict, linking struggle with struggle to form a smooth whole through muscular, lyrical language. As with Holm's music, Gardley's words ricochet among contrasting vernaculars. Competing timbres — the understated Haikulike phrases of a Japanese woman describing the steps involved in preserving plums, the ghettospeak of Lorin's iPod generation, and the smooth talk of a wartime radio broadcaster — slam against each other, creating a turbulent atmosphere. Far from presenting a parochial tale about ZIP code 94703, Gardley's play of perspectives makes us understand that the story of this community (like that of so many others) is one of disparate voices all fighting to be heard. The issues facing Lorin — the drug problem, escalating violence, racial and class divides, and gentrification — are, after all, common to many neighborhoods.

If this form of community theater inspires where the church-hall Charley's Aunt variety doesn't, it's largely because of the innate professionalism of the work being produced. By professionalism, I mean an understanding of the art form that comes with years of experience. Gardley and his collaborators, all seasoned pros, know the power of storytelling; Lorin's first speech is devoted to the theme of yarn-spinning. And yet as the play unfurls, potentially intriguing narrative threads, such as the one about Adeline's tense relationship with her biracial teenage daughter Parker, become increasingly stifled by dogma. These lines of Adeline's say it all: "Big booty is not who you are Parker! You are a beautiful bi-racial sistah. And you are Black and you are White. And I know you're going through a phase right now where you want to explore your Blackness more. Maybe learn more about your father and I think that's beautiful. But being Black is not defined by what you watch on TV, what you wear, or even what you say."

Such amateurish didacticism turns Lorin into an overlong issues play. In creating an intimate relationship between a particular group of people and their narratives, this kind of community theater can be too earnest, too caught up in reflecting the values and interests of its core audience at the expense of art. Local residents (both those onstage and those in the audience) might see their lives healed through the process, but at what creative cost?

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