In ‘Footprint,’ it’s big business vs. the people

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / January 22, 2011

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Hell hath no fury like a neighborhood dissed, especially if said neighborhood is located in the pugnacious, dukes-up borough of Brooklyn.

So when residents of Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights area felt they were being steamrolled by a massive development proposal called Atlantic Yards, which called for the displacement of residents and businesses to make way for more than a dozen high-rise buildings and a basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets, they mobilized to push back.

Their seven-year struggle against powerful business and political interests intent on pushing through the project is the subject of the fiery, fast-paced, and sharp-edged “In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards.’’ A combination of monologues, scenes, and songs performed by The Civilians, a troupe devoted to “investigative theater,’’ this is populism you can hum along to.

The exposed brick and bare-bones vibe of the Paramount Center’s Black Box Theatre, where “In the Footprint’’ is being staged through Sunday under the direction of Steve Cosson, fits with the production’s gritty sensibility. Indeed, The Civilians rehearsed “Footprint’’ in the Black Box for two weeks last fall, before it premiered in New York.

In a documentary theater approach reminiscent of the way the Tectonic Theater Project put together “The Laramie Project’’ and “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,’’ which were performed at the Paramount in tandem last year, “Footprint’’ was scripted by Cosson from interviews of more than 100 people involved in the Atlantic Yards controversy, along with statements made at public meetings.

It’s a byzantine controversy, and it’s not always easy to follow the 90-minute “Footprint,’’ given the complexity of the land-development process, the skirmishing between opposing groups, and the gallery of neighborhood residents, activists, politicians, and business owners who flash in and out of view.

But the show’s six-member cast — three men, three women — find ways to imprint a total of 16 characters with vivid individuality.

Especially strong performances are delivered by Colleen Werthmann as the dogged, implacable Patti Hagan, a neighborhood resident who spearheaded opposition to the project, and Safiya Fredericks as ACORN leader Bertha Lewis, who supported the project because of the benefits she envisioned flowing to the community.

The actors also provide voices for an array of other characters, such as developer Steve Ratner, architect Frank Gehry, hip-hop artist Jay-Z, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz, a supporter of the Atlantic Yards project, who is presented as a talking basketball with a yellow baseball cap on top.

“In the Footprint’’ makes clear that the neighborhood was not entirely united in opposition to the development, one of the largest in Brooklyn’s history (the groundbreaking took place last year). Some black residents, in particular, saw it as “job creation for our community,’’ as James Caldwell (Stephen Conrad Moore), the African-American head of a community organization, maintains in “Footprint.’’ Other characters contend that Atlantic Yards represents gentrification on a massive scale, and that Ratner’s strategy was, in the words of Hagan, “divide and conquer.’’ A black city councilor named Tish James (Simone Moore) argues that most jobs resulting from the project will go to union members, not to residents of the community, and that the development represents an “abuse of eminent domain.’’

The back-and-forth is punctuated by images, including one of a stormy community meeting, projected onto a large, horizontal screen by video designer Jeanette Yew, and by the energetic delivery by the cast of Michael Friedman’s songs.

Friedman’s tunes have a jaunty defiance that, like the rest of “Footprint,’’ somehow manages not to be weighed down by the invocation of concepts that are not exactly staples of musical theater, like economic subsidies, tax breaks, property values, and Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

Don Aucoin can be reached at

IN THE FOOTPRINT: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards

Written and directed

by Steve Cosson

Music and lyrics

by Michael Friedman

Sets, Andromache Chalfant. Lights, Lucrecia Brice�o and Chris Brown. Costumes, Chloe Chapin. Sound, Shane Rettig. Video and projection design, Jeanette Yew.

Performed by The Civilians. Presented by ArtsEmerson:

The World on Stage.

At: Paramount Center,

Black Box Theatre.

Through Sunday. Tickets $39, 617-824-8000,