Telling Stories in the Streets (and Parks, Boardwalks and Porches)

07/22/2009 4:00 AM |

It would be difficult for me to sincerely evoke nostalgia for an era that I didn’t live in, though it seems the stock and trade of my generation. I never lived in a time when theater was a communal activity that wasn’t generally thought of as something for outsiders of one sort or another to engage in. I never lived in a place or a home where storytelling was part of the everyday conversation, instead of a special guest that the librarian at one of my elementary schools brought in off the folk tale circuit. Of course The Moth and public radio have brought storytelling back into the mainstream in a way that is pleasantly surprising and meaningful, I think. But The Moth is a New York thing and I didn’t grow up anywhere near this place and didn’t really discover public radio until I was in college. My primary access to storytelling, if I wasn’t making them up myself, involved me giddily goading my mother to keep reading from a storybook or to tell me another bedtime story of her own devising (I still try to make her tell me stories when she comes to visit).

All of this is to point out what a strange and interesting phenomena the Brave New World Repertory Theatre represents. Though their story starts a bit earlier, it really got interesting when one clear night in the fall of 2005, they staged To Kill A Mockingbird in Ditmas Park (pictured above) on the porches of six grand old Victorian homes that stretch down some of the old tree-lined avenues that have survived in that area. The company put out 750 chairs and some 3,000 people showed up. Over the nearly four years since, they’ve worked with Celebrate Brooklyn! to present Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope, Walt Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The shows are pretty much always one night only, always involve a cast that’s not just white people, and as far as I know, they’re always free. But perhaps most importantly, they involve the idea of a group of people gathering together to hear a story told, live, in person, by people who are there because they love the act of telling it, and all are welcome. Sure it’s idealistic and I know I sound naïve describing it this way, but hell, it’s summer in New York, we oughta be allowed a little bit of innocence now and again. Besides, the writing they’ve been choosing to present has guts—it’s not like they’re out there telling the story of Princess Jasmine or Ariel the Mermaid.

This year, starting July 23, the group will be presenting a series of readings of Carson McCullers’ stage adaptation of her novella The Member of the Wedding. It’s a simple but rich story that follows the thoughts and actions of three oddly matched characters—Frankie, the adolescent girl at the center of the story, who is just at the brink of discovering her self and her sexuality; her six year old sickly neighbor, John Henry; and Berenice, the much older black housekeeper who works for her father. The classic image from the tale is of the three of them sitting around a kitchen table playing cards, but the meat of the play concerns each one’s isolation from society, the desire to love and be loved, and the desire to escape their different roles in the larger world. Though the script is unlikely to disturb the ears of children, there are frighteningly real implications for Berenice’s black friends who try to escape their lives, as well as for Frankie, who is just discovering what it means to become a woman.

The story is set in the south in the 1940s, but the spiritual isolation of the outsider is something that time doesn’t seem to alter. It’s a subtle, but strong piece of writing, and it will be a rare pleasure to hear it read aloud. It’s a classic American tale—precisely the kind that Brave New World Rep prides itself on presenting. And, as I mentioned before, nostalgia for times that aren’t our own is pretty thick in the air these days, so why not keep it going a little bit longer. Plus, this one is thankfully not a one-time-only affair, there will be four “Garden Readings” of the play through July and August.

And keep your eye out for their upcoming production of The Tempest, at Coney Island in September, literally out on the beach. I can’t wait. According to their Web site, there’s going to be two shows.

(photo credit: Nicolai Froehlich)

One Comment

  • Dear Alexis,

    What a nice surprise– I googled BNW’s The Member of the Wedding to see what was out there since we didn’t do a wide press release for the readings. Your words are music to my ears! Thanks for “getting” us!

    Claire Beckman, Producing Artistic Director