By Diana Nollen/ SourceMedia
IOWA CITY — Opie and Otis don’t live in Working Group Theatre’s “Mayberry,” but plenty of Eastern Iowans do.
This brilliant Hancher-commissioned play gives voice to the culture clash in Iowa City and neighboring communities undergoing ethnic transformations. The main focus is on the urban migration from Chicago to Iowa City, but references are made to West Liberty and Cedar Rapids, as well.
Actually, it’s the spirit that matters, not the setting. ”Mayberry” is relevant anywhere and everywhere in this American melting pot, where race, religion, ethnicity and gender issues have been shaking up our sense of community since whites first landed on these shores.
This important docudrama opened on the Riverside Theatre main stage Thursday and plays through Sunday (April 26 to 29, 2012). It moves to Grinnell College at 8 p.m. May 4 and next year to Council Bluffs. Playwright, actor and director Sean Christopher Lewis of Iowa City is hoping to present it in many more places, sparking community dialogues on uncomfortable issues and worrisome topics.
It’s working, because the show was supposed to open Friday, but all the scheduled dates sold out so quickly that Thursday evening and Saturday matinee performances were added. About half of Friday’s full house stayed for a talk-back session with the cast, eager to further the dialogue and brainstorm ways to promote community and assimilation while tackling immediate issues from busing to housing and crime on the city’s southeast side and beyond.
“The changing dynamics of the entire state is one of the major reasons we started this theater company,” Lewis told The Gazette in an earlier interview about the play.
Time and again, Lewis and his Working Group colleagues have tackled the tough subjects, crafting important, thought-provoking, memorable experiences that transcend two hours in a theater seat.
“Mayberry” is another stellar example of socially responsible theater emerging from thorough research, field work and interviews with up to 100 Iowa City area residents, including students, teachers, liberal and conservative residents and those fleeing Chicago for a new, safer life.
Eight professional and University of Iowa actors slip easily between roles, music and situations, sometimes donning hand puppets to say words that are easier to hear from an animated, inanimate object than from people. A chain-link fence and large, narrow photo panels create the setting, dramatic music and lighting enhance the environment, but the power lies in the real words from the real people interviewed for the project.
Through the cast’s expert artistry, the audience becomes invested in the stories of specific youths struggling to fit in; the landlord frustrated over repeatedly repairing damaged apartments; the farmer who doesn’t care who moves in, as long as they give back to the community; and the white adults whose earnest words ring hollow to wary black youths.
The frustrations and desires of all parties are captured in the simple, eloquent statement of a black youth who just couldn’t hold onto a new life in Iowa: “I’m not a project, I just live in one.”
This play is a project in which we all live. Bravo to Hancher, Working Group and all the people brave enough to let their voices be heard.