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  • common green/common groundWho, What, Where, and When
  • Cindy Rosenthal (bio)

common green/common ground is comprised of 14 scenes (plus a prologue and an epilogue) that flow together without significant scene breaks. The piece was performer-driven, with actors in charge of changing the minimal sets and props throughout the play. Percussionists William Cantanzaro and Dionisio Cruz sat offstage right; they were joined at different times by highly skilled student actor/musicians: Joy Lynn Alegarbes on accordion, guitarist Ariel Harman, djimbe player Dhira Rauch, and oboist Maria Elena Lopez-Frank.

The scenes track the evolution and transformation of city green spaces/gardens from vacant, garbage-strewn lots into lush, vital, community havens. Four locations linked to the four performance sites were selected as the focal points of the script: The Point in the South Bronx (performance date: 28 April 2001); La Plaza Cultural in the East Village of Manhattan (performance dates: 5 and 6 May 2001); Project Harmony's garden in Harlem (performance date: 12 May 2001); and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (performance date: 13 May 2001). The setting for the opening scene is Project Harmony's Joseph Daniel Wilson Memorial Garden, on West 122nd Street. Cyndy Nibbelink-Worley and Haja Worley, the founders of Project Harmony, are the central figures in this story. Actress Suzanne Baxtresser played Nibbelink-Worley, who broke her hip as rehearsals began. Worley, a gospel singer, was featured in the performance; he boomed forth the opening refrain of the first musical number in a rich baritone: "In the beginning..."

The next two scenes were set in an unspecified garden in Brooklyn. Rosa Jenkins, Horace Young, and Toby Sanchez are the adult gardeners/performers in this story, which builds on the "creation of a garden" theme begun in the opening Project Harmony section. Although their own gardens are located in three far-flung neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Jenkins, Sanchez, and Young garden together in the context of the play. The next Brooklyn scene was performed by the seven Brooklyn youths (ages 9-13). The energy and positivism embodied in the young gardeners' story-working together to nurture a seed and help it grow into a thriving plant-introduced the "thriving gardens" thematic thread of the piece.

Director Sabrina Peck conceived of using the trickster deity of the Afro-Caribbean religion Santería as a device to hold the stories together. Just before Haja Worley's entrance in the opening number, NYU student Savannah Shange entered as Elegua. As a trickster, she cast a spell on the proceedings, working the audience with twinkly eyed bravado. Peck wove this motif through many scenes, connecting the growth of seeds, gardens, and green spaces with the help and inspiration of the natural spirit world. Elegua provided a spark for community growth as well. Shange instigated interactions among adult gardeners and the youths; in the scenes at The Point, Elegua called on the powers of other Santería orishas (deities) Ogun and Oxun to help with the transformation and rebirth of the waterfront.

The first scene at The Point tells the story of Majora Carter, a young woman who successfully campaigned against environmental racism in her South Bronx neighborhood and spearheaded the clean up and renovation of the Hunt's Point waterfront. Scenes set at The Point featured members of the Upstage Dance Company, teenage dancers from the South Bronx.

The fourth location was the East Village; this section tells the story of the destruction of the Esperanza Garden. Several scenes chart the obstacles for city gardeners struggling to preserve gardens. Seeds of political activism and radicalism are planted; gardeners across the city join forces in the face of Giuliani's steadfast opposition to gardeners' claims to the land they had been stewarding for decades. A lengthy scene, based on several gardener/performers' accounts of their final, failed demonstration supporting the Esperanza Garden, is the climax of common green/common ground. Peck employed the trickster's magic again to provide the necessary release and the hope that leads to rebirth; the Brooklyn youth inspired the adults to proclaim that they do "have a right to the tree of life." At the end of the play, the full cast from the...


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