A half-century later, ‘Common Ground’ still elusive

Omar Robinson , Elle Borders, Amanda Collins, Marianna Basham, and Stacy Fischer in “Common Ground Revisited.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

BOSTON – In the end, the 600-page book became a teaching tool, a jumping-off point for what became a big-picture look at the attitudes and events that led up to the federally-mandated school busing that rocked Boston and still reverberates a half-century later.

The book in question is the 1985 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner for non-fiction, “Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families” by J. Anthony Lukas.

Discussions on turning the work into a theatrical experience went on for years, and now The Huntington’s world premiere production of “Common Ground Revisited” is opening amidst the background of state education officials pondering whether to take over Boston schools in an effort to improve conditions in areas such as transportation, school safety and special education.

“Common Ground Revisited” was conceived by director Melia Bensussen and playwright Kirsten Greenidge, with Greenidge writing the adaptation and Bensussen directing it. They worked together previously at the Huntington on Greenidge’s “Luck of the Irish.”

And while part of the piece is a narrative focused on how busing dramatically affected the lives of three families and events that took place in the 1960’s and 70’s, it also includes a free-form discussion group that takes place in the present. ‘Common Ground Revisited” is a deeply personal work for Bostonians who were born and brought up here or those who chose to make the city home.

The 12 members of the ensemble cast are from Greater Boston or have strong Boston ties and, according to the play’s producers, have played a vital role in the development of the piece through workshops and readings.

A number of their personal stories and experiences have been incorporated into the script, including those of Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who also talked about his experiences as a teacher after arriving in Boston in “Mr. Parent” at the Lyric Stage Company.

Questions will be asked and answered by the 12 members of the ensemble cast, who will also portray a myriad of characters who revolve around the events in question.

Cast members will go in and out of character to join the discussion and ask questions such as: Who is a Bostonian? What does it mean to be born and brought up in the city?

Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Shanae Burch, Omar Robinson, Elle Borders, and Kadahj Bennett in “Common Ground Revisited.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

How have attitudes changed and has Boston truly changed through the years? What about the neighborhoods? Have they changed and in what way?

“Common Ground Revisited” begins and ends with the same fictional encounter between two Charlestown High students:  Lisa McGoff (Marianna Bassham) of Charlestown and Cassandra Twymon of Roxbury (Elle Borders), who have gone through hell together after the buses rolled into Charlestown High during Phase II of Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s order in 1975.

In an interview, Greenidge said she spent years trying to find a way to bring characters from two separate chapters in the Lukas book together, since they were in essence occupying the same space, and then what would it be like for these two students to meet each other.

“Cassandra and Lisa were both active in school life—things like yearbook, graduation. And while the scene we have did not actually happen, my feeling is, okay, how and what might those interactions be like?” said Greenidge.
 “In an ideal world, these two young women—in my ideal world—would be able to go to the same school and talk with each other and delight in each other’s successes. That obviously was not able to happen. But I think to be able to wish for that world where it could, I have to be able to imagine it, and show it to other people.”

Charlestown residents put up stiff resistance to busing; both Lisa McGoff  and mother Alice (Karen MacDonald), a young widow raising seven children in a Charlestown housing project, become activists  when busing arrives on their doorstep.

There is pain aplenty for the Twymon family of Roxbury, headed by Rachel Twymon Sr. (Shannon Lamb), who battles her own health issues to keep her family both housed and in school while turmoil reigns all around them, the chaos deeply affecting daughters Cassandra and Rachel Twyman Jr. (Shanae Burch).

In the South End, the upper-class progressive couple Colin and Joan Diver (Michael Kaye and Stacy Fischer) are heavily invested in the city and their thriving neighborhood school until busing ramps up and the realities of urban life are making them question their decisions.

“Common Ground” also serves as a primer on how the Boston schools ended up under federal control. The passage of the Massachusetts Racial Imbalance Act in 1965 jump-started the process that ended with Boston school parents suing the duly-elected Boston School Committee, a suit that led the Boston schools down the path to a federal courtroom and a judgment by Judge Garrity in 1974 that ordered busing.  

Using photos, videos, charts and graphs and passages from Lukas’s book, Bensussen and Greenidge bring us back to the hate-filled scenes of buses being stoned and children too afraid to leave them and enter school.

The 1974 attack on Ted Landsmark at City Hall Plaza by thugs using an American Flag as a weapon is depicted, as is a conversation between Landsmark and then Deputy Mayor Clarence “Jeep” Jones that is heartbreaking. The incident remains a moment of unrestrained racism and a stain the city has never erased.

In the program, every cast member is listed simply as a member of the ensemble, but they also portray characters who play an important part in Lukas’s narrative.  

So Karen MacDonald pops up as the late School Committee Louise Day Hicks, reminding us once again that “You know where I stand.” Indeed they did.

Bensussen and Greenidge, who developed this work with ArtsEmerson, first began collaborating on the play while teaching a course at Emerson College in 2011.

In the end, the fictional but wished-for meeting between McGoff and Twymon will be reprised, and serve as a metaphor for the healing and coming together – common ground, if you will — that is still a work in progress.

Kudos to Bensussen, Greenidge and a formidable cast for making “Common Ground Revisited” entertaining, educational and accessible.

 It is an important work that will resonate with both those who lived through the turmoil of busing, and those today in the Boston schools who are grappling with problems not of their making that still weigh on the school district.

The Huntington’s world premiere production of “Common Ground Revisited.” Co-conceived by Melia Bensussen and Kirsten Greenidge. Based in part on, and inspired by “Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families” by J. Anthony Lukas. Directed by Bensussen. Adaptation by Greenidge. Presented in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for The Arts through June 26. Digital access to the filmed performance available until July 10. Huntingtontheatre.org

Maurice Emmanuel Parent (foreground) and members of the cast of Common Ground Revisited Photo: T. Charles Erickson