The Atlantic Yards saga is now a play

The Atlantic Yards saga is now a play
Photo by Adrian Kinloch

The battle over Atlantic Yards may be over, but it’s still brewing on stage.

“In the Footprint,” a new play by the Fort Greene-based Civilians theater company, gives a second life to the protests, public hearings and legal proceedings of the past seven years over the controversial $4-billion arena located near Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, the borough’s biggest development project — ever.

“It’s a very important story for Brooklyn, important story for New York City, and it’s important in and of itself,” said director Steve Cosson, whose play opens at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene this Friday. “Theater is first and foremost about conflict, and the whole Atlantic Yards saga has no shortage of dramatic conflict.”

This company is called the Civilians, after all, which makes investigative theater based on real-life people and events, so the focus in the show is on the people on the ground — the residents, the politicians and the community activists — to explore the project from different perspectives. Though the company’s allegiance to the community is clear.

“Atlantic Yards is important in terms of the power of activism and the power of different groups coming together in a coalition to fight and oppose the project,” said Cosson, who noted parallels in other development projects in New York, including the Columbia University expansion and the redevelopment of Willets Point in Queens. “There will continue to be new issues any time the powers that be decide that a part of the city should change, and I think the play isn’t about opposing change, but about how change happens, and what involvement the public has in the decisions that will impact places where people live.”

The actors conducted interviews with such key figures as activists Patti Hagan and Don’t Destroy Brooklyn’s Daniel Goldstein; Borough President Markowitz, a booster for the arena; and Councilwoman Letitia James, who was not. These and other familiar faces are portrayed by actors in the play, which is primarily a collection of their monologues, performed verbatim either as prose or in song.

Prominent figures who declined to be interviewed for the piece, including Mayor Bloomberg and developer Bruce Ratner, will be represented by puppet objects (a suit for Bloomberg, a crane for Ratner), with voiceovers compiled from public statements.

A preview run-through on Monday at the Brooklyn Historical Society showed that the piece is at its best when it embraces the song format, though it does get off topic. Take, for instance, a song based off of a conversation with former Councilman Ken Fisher, where he sings about the “Four Brooklyns” — Manhattan, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and Florida. In another number, “A Word of Advice,” a new arrival warns against telling people what your rent is — so they don’t out-bid you.

Throughout the play, the tone ranges from anger to incredulity for those on both sides of the debate.

“The characters are sophisticated about gentrification, and the play seems to humanize the people involved,” said Tom Angotti, an urban affairs professor at Hunter College. “The human drama was much more complex than this gross idea in the press, that it was all about opposition by selfish, middle class homeowner who were gentrifiers and here was this benevolent developer who was going to build affordable housing and bring jobs, which all turned out to be rhetoric and public relations.”

For those who might yawn at the expected legal jargon, inside baseball or even a historical take on a story that is still playing out, Michael Friedman, who composed the music for the play, found just that challenge the most engaging part.

“For me, the most interesting thing was the dissection of New York — the complexity of how a community is made and the complexities of city politics and planning,” said Friedman. “All these things might make your eyes glaze over, but when you’re dealing with something this emotional, it helps you understand how the city works in a way that I hadn’t before.”

“In the Footprint” at the Irondale Center [85 S. Oxford St. between Lafayette and Fulton avenues in Fort Greene, (718) 488-9233], Nov. 12-Dec. 11. Tickets $35. For info, visit www.thecivilians.org.

Like life: Billy Eugene Jones portrays James Caldwell, president of BUILD and the 77th Precinct Community Council, in The Civilians’s production of “In the Footprint,” a play about the Atlantic Yards project running at the Irondale Center from Nov. 12-Dec. 11.
Photo by Adrian Kinloch