Artists are often idealists, but in Flint this weekend, a new theater company is trying something really optimistic.
They’ve written a play about…emergency managers.
Sure, it may not be the sexiest topic, but it’s got people talking.
"There's this overwhelming sense of apathy."
Like us, for example. I sat in with an auditorium full of ninth graders from Beecher High School as they got a sneak peak.
Because frankly, when you get an email about a fledgling theater company in Flint putting on an original play about emergency managers, you can’t help but wonder: who is crazy or masochistic enough to do this?
The answer is, in part, an earnest, upbeat, hardworking young actress/Starbucks barista named Brittany Reed.
“There’s this overwhelming sense of apathy,” she say. “[In Flint] we have this emergency manager, and everyone’s like, oh my god, it’s the end of the world. We can’t have freedom, we
can’t do anything. And that is not true.”
Reed is a member of the Shop Floor Theater company, a mix of regular people and drama students.
And being from Flint, they know lots of people feel checked out and disengaged right now.
After all, when you can barely pay your water bill, political activism often has to take a back seat.
So the cast and crew figured, hey, let’s get people talking about democracy and freedom by putting on a show.
They’re calling it “State of Emergency.”
"I can hear Dr. King in these perilous times!"
Now, to give these guys credit, they do milk some of the natural drama here.
There are lots and lots of protest scenes, all of them based on actual events.
Like this scene about a local Flint pastor who was jailed for protesting the emergency manager:
Center stage, actor Gary Jones’ voice carries all the way to the back rows. He’s surrounded by other actors carrying picket signs, playing an uproarious crowd of supporters.
“We are under a state takeover! The lessons of the civil rights make it clear! And I can hear Dr. King declare in these perilous times: don’t you get weary! We shall overcome someday.”
Fiscal solvency makes boring theater
And maybe what’s most impressive about this play is that it never, ever tries to dumb these issues down.
Even when you desperately wish they would. There are long scenes that consist entirely of a mishmash of characters who have detailed, winding discussions about financial solvency, school revenue reform, bond ratings, executive orders…
By the time we hit intermission, I’m totally lost, and most of the audience is asleep.
That might not be the play’s fault – their audience is an auditorium full of ninth graders.
“It was a looong play, but I do feel it was very informational,” says DeAndra Holloway.
In the students’ defense, it is 3 o’clock on a Friday, so financial solvency is not the first things on their minds.
"But when we do good, they never acknowledge us."
Still, the play wraps up with polite applause. And it does get the kids talking.
“I don’t think we’re doing real bad, like other people make it seem,” says student Lexus McDaniel.
“Yeah. They quick to just judge us on the bad part, but when we do good they never acknowledge us.”
None of these students needs a play to know that when your city gets an emergency manager, other people write you off.
DeAndra Holloway says, that’s because they’re outsiders.
And outsiders, she says, don’t get that Flint feels real pride in their community, and that they believe things can get better.
“I just see if you do a little bit of work, take it a day at a time, we can actually make some
progress,” says Holloway.
And maybe that’s the whole point of the play – when it’s your city, your home, problems can be bad, but they’re your problems.
Having an emergency manager is like saying, not only are things bad, but the people of this city can’t even handle them on their own.
Brittany Reed, the young actress/barista, says this is the whole point of the play.
“When there’s an announcement like we’re getting an emergency manager, people just lose hope. It’s like, this is happening, but we cannot stop fighting. Is this what democracy looks like? Is this what we want to live with?”
“State of Emergency” runs through this Saturday.