The Civilians fight the battle over Atlantic Yards
I've seen a lot of musicals in development; this is the first I've seen about development. Acting as a collective Anna Deavere Smith, New York–based investigative troupe the Civilians spent two years researching and interviewing for In the Footprint: The Battle over Atlantic Yards (presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Black Box through January 23). The musical-theater piece, which opened two months ago in New York, chronicles the seven-year war over 22 acres of Brooklyn fated to fall to the wrecking ball but refusing to go down easy. The object: to make way for a pricy sports arena and high-rise business-and-condominium project spearheaded by real-estate mogul and part owner of the New Jersey Nets Bruce Ratner. Some New York–centric details may not resonate with Boston audiences, but issues of urban renewal (of which we've botched a few) are as hoary — and as pertinent — as Jane Jacobs's 1961 tome The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Moreover, the Civilians tart up their reportage with catchy ditties about eminent domain and community division, one of them delivered by a chorus of bloggers in bathrobes.
Written and directed by Steve Cosson, with songs by Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson composer Michael Friedman, In the Footprint is like The Laramie Project with cabaret songs, lurching video, and a sometime tongue in cheek. Alternately strident and piquant, it manages to make itself engaging without letting loose the righteous anger of agitprop — or agit-props, of which the show employs a few. Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, a sports fan and an advocate of the Atlantic Yards project, is represented by a basketball speaking into a microphone, pontificating architect Frank Gehry by an building model utilizing a cigar as a pointer. But these figureheads are for the most part unconventionally deployed talking heads. The people of Brooklyn, their arguments drawn verbatim from interviews, get gutsier treatment. And they're not all on the same side.
Fielding a fight that pitted citizen against citizen, In the Footprint presents African-American leaders, who foresaw affordable housing and jobs, scuffling not just with feisty white yuppies defending their gentrified territory but also with members of their own community. In the end, no surprise, the project survives but in compromised form. (The cheapened arena is said to resemble a George Foreman Grill.) This leaves no one in the winner's circle as the Civilians deliver their surprisingly sprightly epitaph for a neighborhood.
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