Common green/common ground

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Eighteen months ago, Jan Cohen-Cruz, associate professor of drama and faculty advisor to the Office of Community Connections at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, embarked on a collaborative project that would focus on city dwellers’ need for readily accessible contact with nature.

With a group of students, she interviewed community gardeners in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan. Their personal testimony was developed, through improvisation, into performance material, and their interwoven stories were combined with music and dance to create theater as song, dance, story and spectacle - "common green/common ground."

"Common green/common ground" recounts the flowering and destruction of New York City community gardens and the extraordinary commitment of many New Yorkers to nurture, against all odds, these plots of greenery.

The production stars a multi-generational cast of 10 drama and playwriting students at the Tisch School and 27 community gardeners and green space advocates of all ages. "Common green" is directed by Sabrina Peck, a creator of original theater pieces and a longtime member of Cornerstone Theatre Company.

"Common green" is a series of over a dozen vignettes, all of which are both entertaining and didactic. Children learn how to plant a seed and cook collard greens. They are nurtured and mentored by adults who teach them to love and respect nature. In the end, both children and adults valiantly defend their plots of land against city administrators who want to sell the land to private investors who will bulldoze the gardens to make way for luxury housing.

But it is all to no avail.

The forces of greed and corruption are too great and the bureaucracy is too impersonal and unmanageable. In one funny but sad scene, the gardeners demonstrate the futility of forever telephoning people who refer them to someone else.

Musical director Michael Keck has created a score that combines Harlem gospel with Latin percussion from the south Bronx. It is both exuberant and moving.

Carlos Doria has not so much designed a set as gathered together material from the different gardens to create symbols such as the tree of life. And, indeed, the very gardens in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx where "common green" is performed are a perfect natural setting for the play.

As with most collaborative street theater, the performance I attended on May 5 at the East Village’s La Plaza Cultural Community Garden was not perfect, nor was it intended to be. The quality of the singing and acting varied wildly, but the enthusiasm and vitality of the performers remained constant while they performed to the capacity crowd.

Even more impressive is the commitment of the performers to their cause. "Common green" represents the best of theater for social action. The actors tell the audience facts such as "one out of three children in Hunts Point has asthma." They sing, "Ain’t you got a right to the tree of life?"

They take jabs at the mayor, the government, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, (which they call the Department of Housing Prevention and Destruction), and surprisingly, even NYU and other universities aggressively acquiring real estate. (Funding for the show has been provided by the NYU Humanities Council and Service/Learning Fund among others.)

The idea behind "common green/common ground" is not that audiences will enjoy the show, go home and sleep soundly. The people who have created this work of art believe that art should move, instruct and make people want to take action - sign a petition, write to a congressman and if necessary, take to the streets to defend what they hold dear. What could be more American? What could be more Brooklyn?

"Common green/common ground" will be performed at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1000 Washington Ave., at 4 pm on May 13. The performance is free.

A pre-performance pageant with neighborhood kids features puppets by Aresh Javadi and staging by Jennifer Miller. For more information call (212) 998-1860.

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