nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
August 11, 2006
Those who live in affluent communities usually share the values that come to define it: good schools, neat lawns, and civility. Playwright Tom Conklin, resident of a prosperous, integrated community in New Jersey, wondered whether his neighbors also shared like views on race. He and Sibylla Nash interviewed a broad spectrum of townspeople, and found his neighbors spilling stories and attitudes that generally are tied to edgier neighborhoods. In subURBAN Stories, Conklin, playwright, director and producer, presents the life experiences of six neighbors. He weaves and intermingles their stories in what he describes as nine movements. How they come to be attracted to the same unnamed New Jersey town is not so much a new story as a story nicely told.
Mild-mannered Keith, a black man who grew up in St. Albans, spent two weeks in the hospital after suffering a compressed skull fracture from a group of white boys. Steve, who is white, grew up in the projects before heroin hit and loved the diversity of the residents. He joined VISTA, taught ghetto kids to build cabins, discovered LSD, and later opened an art gallery. Nancy, raised in Arizona, married a bigoted biker, divorced nine years later, and discovers her happiness in a mixed marriage. La Tonya is in a class of underachieving black students. She is unmotivated and often doesn't hand in her homework, but knows if she had the chance to be in the "smart" class she would be able to do the work.
Another character travels to Ghana to find her roots. She dresses in African costume and headdress only to find that the Africans are dressed in western apparel. They can't understand her desire to live in Ghana since they are aching to find a way out. Still another, a white woman from Newark, had a nephew who was shot by a black man. She doesn't hold the race responsible; but, still, she says, a black killed him.
All the characters are from somewhere else and gravitate to this community after discovering that they want something better. None of the tales is novel, but perhaps they are surprising to Conklin because they come from neighbors he thought he knew. In this project, Conklin learned that beyond the well-manicured lawns and the nicely painted doors, there are real people who have both suffered from and imposed bigotries large and small. What holds this community together is their unanimous desire to keep racial incidents and related ugliness at bay. I don't think anyone in the audience would argue that that is one of the reasons many people move away from urban areas.
The cast, composed of André Blake, Hunt Block, Ami Brabson, Louisa Cabot, Lisa Riegel, and Reilly Brooke Stith, deliver a spirited, "listen to what happened to me" reading. On occasion, Conklin inserts dialogue, which brings the anecdotes to the present and adds immediacy and drama to the tales.
Fred Kinney and Carrie Yanoco designed lighting and sets. Their simple, colorful projections divide the nine movements or stages in the characters lives. subURBAN Stories is presented by What Exit Theatre Co. of Maplewood, New Jersey.