BOSTON — It’s been nearly half a century since a federal judge ordered the city’s schools to be desegregated by busing, and 37 years since writer J. Anthony Lukas plumbed the resulting turmoil in his Pulitzer-winning tome, ” Common Ground”, which entered the canon of the seminal Boston texts.
Now, a leading theater nonprofit here, arguing that the shadow of buses and performances on “Common Ground” continue to shape this city’s reputation and its race relations, is staging a reconsideration of the book, leaked through from the prism of a diverse group of contemporaries. artists
The play, “Common Ground Revisited,” which opened June 10 at the Huntington Theater Company, has been 11 years in the making, began as a thought experiment in a classroom at Emerson College and was delayed, like so many theater projects. , due to the coronavirus pandemic. The cast is made up of actors from Boston, and the work overlays their observations on the events of the book, which follows the bus crisis through the lives of three families.
“This book has a strong and vibrant legacy in Boston — a lot of people have read it and there are different opinions about it and what it means,” said playwright Kirsten Greenidge, who developed the project with Melia Bensussen; Greenidge wrote the adaptation and Bensussen, who is the artistic director of Hartford Stage, directed it.
“We insist on the ‘reviewed’ part,” Greenidge said. “It’s not a direct adaptation of the book, it’s having the book in conversation with us, today.”
The play, bracketed by various alternative ways of depicting, and viewing, a final high school encounter between two students, one black and one white, is not a takedown of the book, but it does gently suggest that there are other historical figures whose stories are also important to us. the history of Boston or, as an actor says during the play, “There is more than one book.”
“Boston, to me, as sold: Revolutionary War, maybe a little bus, and then somehow we’re here, with ‘The Departed,’ ‘The Town,’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’ sprinkled in there.” said Omar Robinson, a Baltimore native who moved to Boston and is one of the actors in the cast. “But our actual history is very rich, multicultural and black, and that is so often overlooked. Maybe not anymore, hopefully.”
That history can sometimes feel very present and sometimes very distant. The play is set in the city’s South End, described in “Common Ground” as “a more ramshackle, shabby part of town,” but now polished and expensive. The city, long run by white men, now has its first female Asian-American mayor, Michelle Wu; she followed a sitting mayor, Kim Janey, who was the first black person to hold that office, and who had been among those bused for desegregation purposes when she was a child.
The demographics of the school district have also changed tremendously: Today, just 14.5 percent of students in Boston public schools are white, down from 57 percent in 1973. And the school system is about half the size it was: there are currently 48,957 students, down from 93,647. (By comparison, in New York City there are about 1 million public school students, 14.7 percent of whom are white.)
Although many in Huntington’s 12-person ensemble are too young to have survived the bus crisis, it still matters. During this time, actress Karen MacDonald’s stepfather taught at the city’s Hyde Park High School; the father of the actor’s friend Michael Kaye was a state trooper assigned to Charlestown High School, where the buses had been met with walkouts, protests and an attempt to bomb the building.
Kadahj Bennett, another cast member, noted that the events of those days had changed the course of his own education a generation later. “My father is an immigrant from Jamaica, he moved here and was involved in bus transportation: they took him to West Roxbury High and he had a rough time,” he said. “With that, my parents decided that he was not going to go to public school.”
One striking aspect of putting on a play about the recent history of the city where it took place: Many people in the audience have memories of the scenes being performed, or even know some of the characters. Some nights, the actors say, patrons come up to them to tell them where they went wrong or wrong in portraying the city and its struggles, and to share their own memories.
Some still have deeply personal connections to the story being described.
Tito Jackson, a former Boston city councilman and mayoral candidate who now runs a cannabis company, has a particularly remarkable bond: He learned a few years ago that his biological mother was Rachel E. Twymon, who was a girl from a of the families presented. in the book. Twymon became pregnant at age 12 and her mother insisted that the child be put up for adoption. Last year, The Boston Globe reported that Jackson had discovered that he was that child.
“I read the book four or five times when I was in college, I was a history and sociology major, so to find out that my birth was in the book was a huge surprise and very emotional,” Jackson said in an interview. The book describes the pregnancy that led to Jackson’s birth as a result of sexual experimentation and “goofing around,” but Twymon said the truth is that she was raped, and Jackson credits Huntington’s work for clearing it up.
“Her life was indelibly marked and often framed by this book and, frankly, the brief attention the book gave to a pregnancy and the birth of a child,” said Jackson, now 47. “Then the people at Emerson asked how a 12-year-old girl, in 1975, with one of the strictest mothers in history, got pregnant.”
Jackson said of the play, “I’m very touched and feel that Rachel’s story, her perspective and her truth, were finally recognized.”
His mother, now 60, is less enthusiastic and feels the play doesn’t sufficiently capture the horrors of the bus age. “You’re talking about a time when things were very hectic and very unstable,” Twymon said. “The play was told very well, and Boston wasn’t like that at the time.”
Another intense personal connection to the work is that of Theodore C. Landsmark, who now directs an urban policy research center at Northeastern University. Landsmark has had a distinguished career, but he will always be known as the black man who was attacked by a white man wielding an American flag as a weapon in Boston’s City Hall Plaza in 1976; Stanley Forman’s photograph of the robbery won a Pulitzer Prize and came to symbolize the racism and violence of the bus age.
“At first I found it unpleasant to have my whole life defined by that one moment,” said Landsmark, 76. “Over time I got used to it and I recognize that it is an opportunity to speak about things that matter to me: the inequities that continue to exist in Boston, particularly within our professional ranks.”
Landsmark said that “Common Ground” is still very influential. “The book is assigned to all kinds of high school and college classes as an entry point to understanding Boston, and I know a lot of people look at Boston through the prism of ‘Common Ground,’” she said. “People who have never been to the city will immediately mention the book or the photograph as a reason for their reluctance to move from places that are as easily racist as Boston is.”
Bensussen, the director, said she wasn’t sure if the play would have a life outside of Boston, given its intensely local focus, but noted that local students were more likely to study the national civil rights movement than Boston’s bus crisis. Boston, and said she hoped the play might spark a rethink of that. Landsmark said that she could imagine excerpts from the play performed in a variety of settings to spark a discussion about current forms of segregation.
As for the actors, several of them said they wanted to feel optimistic that progress is underway, but wondered if that’s realistic given the current state of the nation.
“I want there to be hope, but it’s not something I see every day, it’s not something I’ve found in my almost 20 years in the city,” Robinson said. “Reading this book, working on this, shone a bright light on his past, and therefore his present, in many ways for me. Not just here in Boston, this country has a rich history. But I hope.”