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Theater collaboration brings Boston controversy to life

It was a troubled time in Boston. It was the 1970s and the desegregation of the public schools was taking place via forced busing of schoolchildren.

More than 25 years later, about two dozen Emerson students—who hadn’t been born until decades after these history-making events—immersed themselves in that period through their work in a Performing Arts class called Adaptation.

Performing Arts Associate Professor and Chair Melia Bensussen oversees the Adaptation class, which is creating a theatrical work based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Common Ground, about the school desegregation crisis in 1970s Boston.

Led by Associate Professor and Performing Arts Chair Melia Bensussen and local playwright Kirsten Greenidge, the students began the fall semester by reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning account Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985) by J. Anthony Lukas to familiarize themselves with the tense period. The students are using the book as a foundation for a theatrical exploration to be presented by Emerson Stage on Friday (December 16).

The book traces three families’ experiences of busing: the African American Twymons, the Irish McGoffs, and the Yankee Divers. The students’ mission was to locate people who appeared in the book and interview them using a method they had learned from members of the New York-based Civilians theater company. In a multi-year collaboration, ArtsEmerson and the College brought in The Civilians last year “to teach students about investigative theater,” said Luke Jones, a second-year graduate student in Writing, Literature and Publishing. “The Adaptation class was a chance to use the method in a show.”

Investigative theater involves using the words and even the mannerisms of interview subjects in a theatrical production. In addition, several scenes from Common Ground will be adapted from the book, and students will write entirely new scenes. “News reports, funeral transcripts, sound clips from politicians. We weave this all together to make theater pieces,” said Dan Robert ’13, a Theatre Studies and Acting major.

 “Making a show from scratch was a really exciting idea,” said Maria Carreon ’13, who is part of the class.

The Adaptation students—who were mostly unfamiliar with the busing crisis before taking this class—divided into small groups and took to the neighborhoods. Jones and his cohort visited Charlestown and decided to simply stop an elderly woman on the street. Within a minute or two, it was clear that the students had struck gold. “She knew a lot of the people in the book,” said Jones.

Even after all these years, the students were “impressed that everyone we met was so grateful to have the outlet” to talk, said Melissa Bergstrom, a second-year graduate student in Theatre Education. Even the family who endured a home invasion described in the book on page 636 opened their doors and gave the students a tour of the house, said Bergstrom.

Dan Robert was part of a group whose mission was to locate Twymon family members. He turned first to his computer. He knew that Rachel Twymon, the matriarch of the African American family, had died. In seconds, “I found her daughter, Rachel Jr., on Facebook. We made a connection on the phone. We spoke for a very long time.” Within weeks, they had set up an in-person meeting with her and her two sons, who came to Piano Row.

 “It was never imaginable that I would be in a room with Rachel Twymon Jr. and having this conversation,” said Robert, in awe of the occurrence. “She’s so incredibly giving, you don’t even have to ask questions. She’s willing to offer us this information.”

For Robert, his experience in the course “is a dream. I want to write, I want to direct, I want to act. I’m doing all three.”

The students gathered twice a week all semester in the Semel Theater to work on the project, which will be presented to the public this Friday (December 16) at 8:00 pm in the Greene Theater.

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