In The Footprint
nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
November 19, 2010
Once someone falls in love with Brooklyn, something palpable takes over. Service disruptions on subway trains are easily excused and "neighborhoodie" pride arises. Effusive blogs espouse the worth of almost every nook and cranny in the city's most populous borough, including the highly polluted Gowanus Canal. If that's not enough, Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn's borough president, will turn up at an event in a Neptune costume just to champion the worth of Brooklyn's people, places, and food. While the smitten may look normal on the outside, the idea of living in The City (a.k.a. Manhattan) or any other inferior borough can strike rage or terror on a cataclysmic level in their hearts.
This infatuation can lead to possession in one form or another. Those whose families have lived there for generations stake their claim over those who gentrify. Those who gentrify gobble up brownstones. And developers see big opportunities in Brooklyn, an area that would be one of the five largest cities in the United States if it were to secede from the other four boroughs.
It is beyond fitting that The Civilians, an investigative theater ensemble, brings In the Footprint: the Battle Over Atlantic Yards to the Irondale Center in Fort Greene, a performance space that will itself soon be in the shadow of a new basketball arena and other developments. Pieced together from interviews conducted by company members and shaped by Steve Cosson, the production's director, and Jocelyn Clarke, In the Footprint takes a complex and deeply emotional issue and makes great theatre. In a sparse playing space, with two large seating units facing each other, the ensemble takes the audience on a documentary-style ride through the neighborhood that will be severely changed by eminent domain. That term, usually referring to when private property is taken over for public use by the government, is something of the main character here. But this isn't your mom's eminent domain. In this case, it was granted to a corporation, Forest City Ratner Companies headed by Bruce Ratner.
The Civilians turn over all the facets of this story with lyrically complex songs written by Michael Friedman, first-person accounts, and some sharp video design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. They clarify the difference between Downtown Brooklyn and The Footprint, where the trouble is brewing. I felt as though I was transported to the stoops, the barstools at the now demolished Freddy's Back Room, community board hearings, and numerous press conferences where those for and against the project to build a stadium for the Brooklyn Nets and other high-rise buildings let out their feelings and opinions. You get to hear many perspectives, from a man on a street corner with a frozen dinner to a woman fighting keep her building to Jay-Z, the rap star who has endorsed the development. When it seems you can lump the gentrifying people into one camp against ruining the property while the long-time residents are for the job creation, you get another perspective that does not fit so neatly. Some of the perspectives will make you laugh or squirm (or both in the case of the politician explaining the four kinds of Brooklyn), but mostly it lands like something truer than true.
While none of the performers is adept at handling the basketball that was thrown around at various points in the show, they are all as skilled as LeBron James (who, by the way, will not be playing for the Nets) at switching characters; expressing ideas through song, handling comedy, and frequently putting a lump in the audience's throat. At times they use direct address with the audience or speak with an invisible "other"; in the case of Markowitz, one actor holds the basketball with a baseball cap on top in front of a microphone while another impersonates his voice at another microphone and a photograph of the borough president is projected on the wall. Actors Matthew Dellapina, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Billy Eugene Jones, Greg McFadden, Simone Moore, and Colleen Werthmann are the real deal and never let the air out of the room for the 90 minutes of this show.
At times, the piece feels like hearing the news and then getting the true dope from your neighbors. You see the Cubist jumble Frank Gehry proposed for the development, you hear his design concepts and then get what the people living there thought of it. You go through the ups and downs of Ratner's plans falling apart in the economic downturn of 2008, only to be resurrected with the influx of money from Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who now has the majority stake in the Brooklyn Nets. You get the comparisons to the civic pride engendered by the Brooklyn Dodgers, and how this development will be nothing like that.
Walking in the area near the Irondale Center after the show and knowing the ground has been broken for the arena solidifies the feeling that The Footprint will never be the same. That very New York hobby of looking at listings in neighborhood real estate store windows takes on a different air because who knows how things will really be in a few years. Still, you can understand the lengths someone would go to remain in that area. As one character says of another long-time resident: "a grown-ass man sleeping in a bunk bed just to stay in the neighborhood."