Ask Rosalind Bell to talk about her experiences as an African American in a newly integrated high school in Lake Charles, La., during the late 1960s, and she won’t. But the Tacoma playwright has put those experiences of racism, friendship and growing up into “1620 Bank Street,” a play that’s seeing its first full production this weekend at the University of Puget Sound, where Bell is artist-in-residence.
It’s a play that might be hard to stage and hard to watch, but its directors say it raises issues that are just as important now as they were during the civil rights era.
“This play is important because it gives us knowledge that we may not have access to, to listen in on conversations that we may not have had the chance to hear or were afraid to have,” said co-director and UPS theater chairman Geoff Proehl. “It’s an enormous gift.”
“Some of the aches that ‘1620 Bank Street’ talks about – around race, class, history, gender and religion – are ones that are in the mouths and bellies of people here now,” said Grace Livingston, associate professor of African-American studies and Proehl’s co-director and co-dramaturge.
Proehl, who is Caucasian, and Livingston, who is African American, have worked with Bell over three years to see the play to fruition, from script to reading to pedagogical work to stage reality. All three see it as the embodiment of what the university has pledged to do to unite race, education and community.
Watching “1620 Bank Street,” though, what’s forefront is not pedagogy but the sheer determination of protagonist Claressa as she navigates her way through six years in a changing world. Sent by her parents to what they think will be an integrated life at a local high school (modeled after Bell’s own), what the 12-year-old Claressa actually experiences ranges from tentative friendships to outright bigotry. Add in the usual mix of teenage confusion and rebellion, friends who like to push limits and boy interest, and you have a play that pulses through its 30-something scenes with raw emotion and disturbing history.
Only it’s not just history.
“I just read that last August, a Louisiana class of ’79 was having a reunion – but they didn’t invite blacks,” said Bell, of why her play needs to be seen. “That, and when we took a recent campus climate survey at Puget Sound, there were responses from minority students about how they were treated on campus that were so close to the things in ‘1620 Bank Street.’ They felt like they didn’t belong, that they were excluded.”
“When we catch the bus, when we drive, when we apply for loans – the discrimination that happens is painful,” Livingston said. “We don’t talk about it. White people, people of color – sometimes we don’t want to talk about it. Without public artistic conversations, it will never move.”
As well as opening race issues, the play has brought together several departments at the university. Bell, who was appointed artist-in-residence three years ago, teaches her play (and her earlier work “New Orleans Monologues,” produced in 2006-07 at UPS) to students of English, theater arts, writing and learning techniques, and African American studies.
It was given its first reading at the 2010 Race and Pedagogy Conference, a new initiative by UPS to link education and community, and is an example, Livingston said, of how the university is trying to offer both critical education for students and a space for public conversation on topics of race.
But if watching Claressa endure the third-degree from a white friend’s mother, or hearing her own mother call white boyfriends “filth” is hard, then staging “1620 Bank Street” is even harder. Thirty characters, over 30 scenes and a six-year time period make Proehl’s job “challenging,” he said.
“But it’s kind of fun,” he added. “All those scenes are links. … It gives you the chance to play with the rhythm of the play, to be creative.”
The creativity also extends to the set, which Kurt Walls has made highly flexible with various spotlit mini-locations, a central dining room/loft for Claressa’s home, and scaffolding bearing historic photos of all the places in the play: the high schools, the cars, the Louisiana homes. Period props like phonographs and wooden chairs add atmosphere; the rest hinges on Bell’s rapid-fire dialogue that doesn’t pull any punches. (Parents be warned: There’s strong and offensive language.)
This is a play you’re unlikely to see in a professional theater – there are just too many characters.
“It goes to the heart and mind of how we see people, and how it affects justice,” Livingston said. “I know I’ve been changed by it, as a teacher, and I’m sure it’s done that for other teachers, too. The students are challenged to learn the world of that play, to enter the characters from a different place. … This community can find its face in this text. It may be uncomfortable, it may be edgy – but so be it.”
See the play
What: “1620 Bank Street” by Rosalind Bell
Where: University of Puget Sound, Norton Clapp Theater in Jones Hall, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma
When: 7:30 tonight and Saturday, plus Nov. 1-3; 2 p.m. Nov. 3.
Warning: Strong language; challenging social themes
Information: 253-879-3555, pugetsound.eduRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568