Saturday, October 30, 2010

Theater as history: Getting un-segregated in Ohio

Jennifer Lanier, K.B. Mercer, Susan Banyas and LaVerne Green in "The Hillsboro Story"
By Barry Johnson

Arts Dispatch was late getting to The Hillsboro Story, Susan Banyas's memory-plus-research play about her hometown, Hillsboro, Ohio.  In fact, it closes its run at Artists Repertory Theatre tonight (Saturday) after a short original run and then a four-performance extension.

Perhaps we haven't seen the last of it, though. It's fairly easily staged (it appears, at least); its subject, race relations in America in the 1950s when legal segregation began to crumble, is engaging; and its light, poetic approach encourages our own memories and thoughts to gather for further exploration. Banyas has already lined up a tour of the show back to the Midwest next year, and I think it has lots more to tell us here, too.

The Hillsboro Story isn't conventional theater, but Banyas (who wrote, directed and stars in the play) isn't a conventional theater artist. Her practice has focused on the "performance art" part of the theater spectrum -- the personal story deeply considered and converted to words and movement, often accompanied by music. She has done this herself, and she has helped others get to the bottom of their own stories, too.

So, the play doesn't have conventional structure or elements. It's episodic, but the episodes really aren't scenes. It has a narrative direction, though it pauses for purely personal bits that are more atmospheric than crucial elements of the narrative.  It has lots of characters, but not a lot of character development, even from the narrator, Banyas.  ART demonstrated that it has an elastic idea of theater to schedule it in the first place, for which the company (and artistic director Allen Nause deserve a hand of their own).

Enough set-up. Hillsboro in the 1950s, when Banyas's father owned a Buick dealership there and Susan spent a mostly idyllic "Leave It to Beaver" childhood with swimming pools and best friends and kindly teachers who read from Charlotte's Web, had the same dirty little secret that just about every American town had. It was segregated -- mind, body and spirit. And after Brown v. Board of Education in 1955, the "body" part of that equation started to become illegal. That meant Hillsboro arrangement for educating its African-American children wasn't any more in compliance with the law than any town in Alabama.

The Hillsboro Story describes Banyas's life then, and her growing awareness that something wasn't right and that it was changing. The two primary agents for change? One was the county engineer, Philip Partridge, a white man, who took it upon himself to burn down an all-black school so that the students would have to go to all-white schools. The play quotes extensively from his memoir, an astonishing piece of American history, really, a justification of arson for the purpose of racial equality.

The other agent was Imogene Curtis, an African-American mother, who decided that enough was enough and organized other mothers to picket the all-white elementary schools, which was where young Susan Banyas started to understand that something was wrong in paradise. Her cause was taken up by the NAACP, and a lawsuit filed, a negative decision rendered and then appealed -- and then won, in a sweeping judgment written by Judge Potter Stewart, who later became a justice of the Supreme Court of the U.S.

We have three entwining threads, then. A young girl remembering her life in small-town Ohio. The story of a literal firebrand. The story of a group of African American mothers fighting for their children and racial equality. Two of those end up in court cases, which have characters of their own. A lot of information passes by, a lot of people introduced, a lot of stories to keep track of. But Banyas has done two important things. She's worked the material enough to keep it clear, surrendering details undoubtedly in order to keep things legible for the audience. And she keeps things moving, dancing really, so that we never get bogged down in any particular episode.

Banyas has a lot of experience with dance herself, and she's enlisted a previous collaborator, the choreographer Gregg Bielemeier, to help her with The Hillsboro Story. They animate the action with mime, spins, twists and even girl-group dance routines, especially from Banyas herself, who acts as narrator and as her younger self. The rest of the cast -- LaVerne Green, Jennifer Lanier and K.B. Mercer -- deploy into the host of other characters: Green gets the juicy role of Imogene Curtis, for example; Lanier, the powerful NAACP attorney Constance Baker Motley; Mercer slips easily into the role of Banyas's best friend. Behind the action, a subtle score by David Ornette Cherry delivers important cultural information, placing us in time as well as providing an emotional backdrop.

What keeps it all light and accessible? I think it's that Banyas never abandons her younger self in the narrative. That makes everything seem fresh, though the events are more than 50 years old. But really, it IS fresh. I'm willing to bet than none of us in the audience know the details of this particular story. Sure, we might remember or have heard about some of the more dramatic events in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, from the desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Ark., onward. The Big Events were crucial, and they were accompanied by a host of smaller actions that bubbled all over the country, affecting schools and towns and big cities everywhere, each with its own special circumstances and peculiar details.

The great truth of The Hillsboro Story? That when it came down to it, the children, black and white, had to work out things for themselves, reach their own accommodations, come to their own conclusions, change their patterns of behavior and association, re-consider the values that created segregation in the first place (at least until the creation of a system of private academies in the South re-instituted a de facto segregation, which continues today).

I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, until we moved to a small town in Ohio when I was in 3rd grade. In second grade, my grade school was integrated and my class of second graders received a single African American student mid-year. I think his name was Charles, and he was given the desk next to mine.  I remember him pretty well -- quiet (at least in those circumstances), smart, small and strong. We talked a bit, I sat with him at lunch sometimes, especially when he brought a sheet of drawings from home, depictions of cowboys that his father had sketched for him. I loved my own father, but I was envious of someone whose father could create those beautiful drawings. We traced them with our fingers and staged imaginary gunfights.

The Hillsboro Story reminded me of Charles and that little town, and the impossible tangle of those times, which we've only picked at around the edges ever since. I admire Banyas for tracking down her own memory, finding out what happened in Hillsboro, at least a sketch of it, and figuring out a way both to tell me her story and rekindle my own. And if we have more questions about Hillsboro and what happened to those kids, those attitudes, that way of doing business, than the play answers, well, that's a good thing, too. I need to answer those questions for myself.


Marty Hughley's preview and his review of The Hillsboro Story get into Banyas's process in an illuminating way.

Hear David Ornette Cherry talk about his work on the play with Zaph Mann for OPBMusic.

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