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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 318-320
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The Good Person Of New Haven
The Good Person Of New Haven. Adapted by Alison Carey from Bertolt Brecht. Long Wharf Theatre in association with Cornerstone Theater Company, New Haven, Connecticut. 4 June 2000.
The Long Wharf Theatre is sandwiched between meatpacking warehouses off I-95, just at the edge of New Haven. Brecht might have liked the spot. Despite the working class setting, like most regional theatres, Long Wharf draws a predominantly affluent white audience. When Doug Hughes arrived as Artistic Director in July 1997, he immediately commissioned the Cornerstone Theater Company to develop a piece about New Haven, a famously diverse and contentious city. Now based in Los Angeles, Cornerstone has amassed a vital body of work in site-specific adaptations of the classics performed with volunteers from isolated or divided communities. They dedicated eighteen months to outreach activities in New Haven's various neighborhoods, and had more than 300 people audition for parts in the production, the most ever in any Cornerstone project. In June 1999, an early version of the adaptation was given staged readings followed by audience talkbacks on Long Wharf's Stage II. The finished production, using a cast of twenty-four local people, very diverse in terms of age, race, experience and ethnicity, and ten Equity actors, played to mostly full houses last spring.
Directed by Cornerstone co-founder and Artistic Director Bill Rauch, the fast-paced show ran on Long Wharf's Mainstage with strong design and musical support. Cornerstone regular Lynn Jeffries (sets) tucked the musicians on a highway overpass under Long Wharf's low ceilings, where they wore construction workers' day-glo bibs, just one of many hip and colorful touches by costumer David Zinn. Shishir Kurup (composer) devised new up-tempo songs in a variety of styles, many with African or Latin percussion.
Alison Carey's adaptation was quite faithful to the original plot, though names and circumstances were altered to suit New Haven: the lead role of Shen Te/Shui Ta became Tyesha/Taiwo; Brecht's tobacco shop became a mini-mart; Yang Sun, the pilot, became Eddie, the train man; Fong the water-seller became Quinn, the homeless man who collects cans; the gentle neighbor couple who loan Tyesha money were gay men in their 60s. A key change turned Brecht's three gods into three angels, I suspect to avoid distressing a segment of the audience who would have found the notion of multiple gods, especially inept ones, sacrilegious. As it was, a vocal group at the staged reading objected to the angels' fall: drinking, taking drugs, and carrying guns as their disillusionment with life on earth progressed. In the final version of the script, while the angels' costumes and moods were sullied over time, all references to drugs and guns vanished. In performance, the angels were marvelous: a trio of white men, Drew Carey clones with buzz cuts, plaid shorts, and Hawaiian shirts with feathered wings, singing angelic doo-wop harmonies. They earned one of the production's biggest laughs appearing as puppets on a clothesline waving farewell.
While the radical secularism of Brecht's script seemed to jar some of the more religious segments [End Page 318] [Begin Page 320] of the community working to revitalize New Haven, there was no objection to Reverend Marsh (Brecht's Mr. Shu Fu), depicted here as a wealthy African American preacher and slumlord: quite the contrary. At the reading, several individuals stated explicitly that they knew of situations where churches or church people behaved similarly. The theatre's dialogue with the community during the development process touched on some genuine controversy, but in performance, the production's tone was more celebratory than pointed. For instance, Yale was mentioned, but more kindly than might be expected in a city where town/gown relations have long been problematic. The script went back to the safe distance of the Black Panthers trial in the 1960s rather than taking on more recent wounds. However, New Haven references were everywhere: the churches on the green, recent...