Musical puts the spotlight on community

By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2011

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NEW YORK — Bostonians know all about polarizing development projects designed to reshape swaths of the city. From the razing of the West End decades ago to Harvard University’s plans in Allston or efforts to reinvent the South Boston waterfront, Hub residents have heard the arguments about urban renewal, affordable housing, building height restrictions, and eminent domain, about greed versus civic good.

The Civilians, a scrappy Brooklyn-based theater company, tackles some of these thorny issues from a New York perspective with its new musical, “In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards,’’ at Boston’s Paramount Black Box Wednesday through Jan. 23, presented by ArtsEmerson.

The show centers on conflicts surrounding the largest land development project in Brooklyn since the days of the controversial urban planner Robert Moses. The 22-acre proposed mini-city has already displaced hundreds of residents and small businesses.

Standing alongside the gaping black void of the Atlantic Yards footprint on a recent evening, Civilians artistic director Steve Cosson, who co-wrote and directed the show, says its themes should resonate with urban dwellers everywhere. They speak, he says, “to a larger phenomenon of what’s going on in our country about the collusion of government and corporate power.’’

At first glance, a musical that tries to explain the intricacies of eminent domain procedure and features a song detailing how two arcane state agencies work in tandem sounds about as riveting as watching a C-SPAN marathon.

But “In the Footprint’’ is neither an esoteric wonk-fest nor a polemical screed. Instead, it features such insouciant touches as a developer represented by a toy crane, a chorus line of bathrobe-clad watchdog-bloggers, project designer Frank Gehry played by a cigar-chomping architectural model, and an empty suit standing in for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, all in a tone that balances the serious with the silly and sardonic.

Amid the irreverence, “In the Footprint’’ also leaves audiences with serious food for thought. The show is less about that quintessential New York obsession — real estate — and more about the fragility of communities and the places we call home, the effects of gentrification on low-income and minority neighborhoods, and how powerful corporate interests can trump the concerns of average citizens.

“The most important reason for doing a play about Atlantic Yards is that it’s a wake-up call to how our democracy is functioning or not functioning — how things actually get decided,’’ says Cosson, who lived in the adjacent neighborhood of Fort Greene when the Atlantic Yards project was first gaining traction and whose company is based a few blocks away. “For the most part, I think your average citizen, myself included, doesn’t know the ins and outs of how big projects get decided in a city. But I don’t think anyone would imagine it’s actually done the way it is being done here.’’

Spearheaded by developer Bruce Ratner with a master plan designed by Gehry, Atlantic Yards was once slated to include 16 residential and office towers, but has been dramatically scaled back because of the stagnant economy. (So far, ground has been broken on a single residential building and a basketball stadium for a relocated New Jersey Nets franchise.)

The Civilians, founded by Cosson and friends 10 years ago, create their shows using investigative and journalistic means. For “In the Footprint,’’ they interviewed area business owners, residents, activists, bloggers, local politicians, and power brokers. Major characters who emerged include ACORN leader Bertha Lewis; Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, an avid supporter here represented by a basketball; and Daniel Goldstein, a vocal opponent and the last tenant to be forced from the footprint. The Civilians’ work was aided by a $150,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

The result mixes verbatim dialogue (culled from interviews, news reports, and public meetings) with jaunty tunes and cabaret-style theatrics to tell the tangled story of a borough divided between old-timers and newcomers, between developers, community activists, and power brokers. A six-member cast switches roles at dizzying speed. In the end, the play offers no easy answers.

“Audiences are so used to having their hands held,’’ Cosson says. “But we don’t give them heroes and villains, and we don’t tell them, ‘This is the right thing to think here.’ ’’

The Civilians have spent the past decade honing their brand of cultural anthropology with shows on topics ranging from a working-class uprising in 1871 (“Paris Commune’’) to the evangelical movement in Colorado Springs (“This Beautiful City’’). They were recently awarded a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to create a play about climate change (“The Great Immensity’’) and are working on a musical about the porn industry.

“We’ve become really interested in how community is made and exists and what the obligations of citizenhood are,’’ says company member Michael Friedman, who wrote the music and lyrics for “In the Footprint’’ and the recent non-Civilians musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.’’ “What does it mean to live in a society? What does society owe you, and what do you owe society?’’

As Cosson walks alongside the brownstone-filled blocks next to the footprint — with steel girders for the stadium rising on one side of the site and buildings being demolished at the opposite end — he says he takes the company’s truth-seeking responsibility seriously.

“Not knowing where you’re going is the whole point,’’ he says. “That’s really a core principle of staging a work of investigative theater: That it has to truly be an investigation. You have to come to it not knowing what the result is going to be.’’

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail .com

IN THE FOOTPRINT: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards Presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Black Box, Jan. 19-23. Tickets: $39. 617-824-8000,