CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (415) 723-2558
COMMENT: Harry Elam, Drama Department (415) 725-9853
World premiere of two one-act plays
STANFORD -- When the curtain rises on Dancing on the Brink on. Nov. 10 at the César Chávez Academy in East Palo Alto, spotlights will focus on an Ohlone Indian chief who ruled the region in 1769.
"The play opens with a ceremony in which the chief tells her tribe that the previous night she had a horrible dream," said Harry Elam, associate professor of drama, who is directing the play. "Her dream is about the future of East Palo Alto."
As the action flashes forward to the future, the cast of Stanford students and community players explores questions of land ownership and what can be learned from the area's long, distinctive history.
"It's really a story about community building and working together," Elam said.
The specially commissioned play, Dancing on the Brink, is part of a larger multimedia effort, "Dreams of a City: The East Palo Alto Project." A collaboration between Stanford and East Palo Alto, the project tells the story of East Palo Alto's development by drawing on interviews with local residents, two one-act plays and a documentary video that will be integrated into the elementary school curriculum of the Ravenswood District.
A task force of Stanford faculty and staff and East Palo Alto activists has guided the project for three years, and the combined effort already is drawing local praise.
"From the very beginning, it involved community people," said Jeanne Cuffey Tatum, a professional actress and singer who works for the Peninsula Community Foundation, one of the financial supporters of the project. "It wasn't someone on the outside coming in and saying, 'We're going to do a history,' and then writing it up. From the start the community has provided ideas and suggestions about how to proceed."
Three years in the making, "Dreams of a City" will culminate with the premiere of the two plays that were commissioned by the Committee on Black Performing Arts (CBPA) at Stanford. They will run together Nov. 10 and 11 at César Chávez Academy, 2450 Ralmar Ave., and then move to the Nitery Theatre on campus from Nov. 15 to 18. All shows are at 8 p.m., except for matinees at 2 p.m. on Nov. 12 and 19. Tickets are $3 in advance, or $5 at the door, and can be purchased by calling CBPA at 723-4402.
The project is modeled after "Rites and Reasons," a similar undertaking at Brown University that was initiated by two African American theater professors, George Houston Bass and Rhett Jones, more than 20 years ago.
"Students there had researched the history of black Providence, Rhode Island, and turned it into a play," Elam said. "I'd read about the research-to-performance project some time ago, and it stayed with me."
In 1992, when he first began to consider what has come to be known as "Harry's project," Elam said East Palo Alto was portrayed as the "murder capital" of the nation.
"But the point is that the city took steps to eradicate that image," Elam said. "So we wanted to look at how perceptions come to be, and also at how East Palo Alto had been represented in the media."
Because East Palo Alto is now almost evenly divided between black and Latino residents, Elam and the CBPA interviewed both African American and Chicano/a playwrights to tell the community's story.
"The search landed Cherríe Moraga, who is the most prominent Chicana playwright in the country, and Charles 'OyamO' Gordon, who had worked previously in this mode," Elam said.
Moraga and OyamO came to Stanford for writing residencies and also had opportunities to workshop their plays in community forums in East Palo Alto.
Moraga, an award-winning playwright, director, poet, essayist and teacher, was selected for her experience writing about and within communities. Her plays Watsonville and Heroes and Saints, for which she received the Will Glickman Prize, the Drama-logue and Critics Circle Award, chronicled the pesticide poisoning of Mexican laborers in McFarland and Watsonville, Calif.
The play Moraga wrote for the Stanford/East Palo Alto project, Circle in the Dirt, uses the dismantling of Ravenswood High School and the Cooley apartments as the backdrop for seeing East Palo Alto, past and present, through the eyes and interactions of various members of its culturally diverse communities.
OyamO, an associate professor of English at the University of Michigan, has written more than 28 plays, including I Am a Man, about the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. His one-act play for the project, Dancing on the Brink, is set inside the dream of a Muwekma/Ohlone chief and takes a long, historical view of East Palo Alto's cultural and political struggles.
After the curtain closes each night, the house lights will come up and audience members will be invited to participate in a post-play discussion.
"To me, this is really more important than the plays themselves," Elam said. "One of the ideas we've worked with all along is that drama should do more than entertain, and we're hoping that the discussions will touch on issues that came up during the performances."
Each discussion will be led by a Stanford faculty member who has been active in East Palo Alto, or by a community resident.
"They'll lead off with comments and we'll hope to get further feedback from the audience," Elam said. "As a result, we hope Stanford will be sensitized to local issues in new ways."
For Elena Becks, program assistant at the Committee for Black Performing Arts and a lifelong resident of East Palo Alto, the project already has given her new insights into her community. She conducted a number of the oral interviews that the two playwrights drew on for their scripts, and says she was surprised by what she learned from her conversations with old friends.
"I always thought we were a very diverse community, but it's much more extensive than I'd realized," Becks said. "Everyone I interviewed had a different piece of the whole picture, a new perspective."
More than 80 hours of interviews now have been archived at the Committee on Black Performing Arts' Harmony House, and Michael Levin of Stanford's Academic Software Development will draw on the video segments to produce an hour-long documentary that will illustrate how the personal dreams of East Palo Alto residents have influenced the direction and values of the city. The video, which traces the community's development from the days of Runnymede and the Charles Weeks poultry farm, to the block busting of the 1950s and the movement for community control in the '60s and '70s, will be presented Nov. 28 at East Palo Alto City Hall, and then will be incorporated into the curriculum for grades three through eight in the Ravenswood City School District.
Dreams of a City is funded through support from the Black Fund of the Peninsula Community Foundation; Community Foundation of Santa Clara County; William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; LEF Foundation; and Romic Environmental Technologies. Campus support comes from Academic Software Development; Dean's Office of Humanities and Sciences; Bing Teaching Initiative; Drama Department; Undergraduate Research Opportunities; Haas Center for Public Service; Irvine Multicultural Grant; Black Student Union; Office of the Provost; and individual donors.
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