Mayberry covers class and ethnic issues in Iowa City

BY JULIA JESSEN | APRIL 26, 2012 6:30 AM

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Mayberry opens with the actors of the play portraying themselves, rather than their characters.

They stand behind a chainlink fence and tell the audience about their life in Iowa City. The set then transforms into a collage of characters with myriad opinions about the city.

"All theater at its best is community theater in the sense of being about the community," said Sean Christopher Lewis, Mayberry's playwright and the Working Group Theater's artistic director. "How often is there a play that is so immediately about where you live?"

The influx of predominantly African-Americans moving to the Southeast Side of Iowa City is central to Lewis' play. The production, commissioned by Hancher, and produced by Working Group Theater, will première at 7:30 p.m. Friday to a sold-out crowd at Riverside Theater, 213 N. Gilbert St. Shows will continue at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on April 29. Admission ranges from $10 to $25. There will also be a free showing at 5 p.m. May 1 at Southeast Junior High, 2501 Bradford Drive.

"It's a tapestry of people who live in and around Iowa City — a tapestry of opinions and experiences," said Jennifer Fawcett, the associate artistic director of Working Group Theater and an actor in Mayberry. "I think that the play provides a platform for conversation by allowing people the opportunity, if they're willing, to listen to some very diverse opinions."

Creation of Mayberry

Lewis spent around two years conducting interviews with people living in Iowa City and in Chicago to gain understanding of the issues that he hoped his play would address.

"I think the thing with interviewing is it's like having a conversation where I just shut up a lot," he said. "I think those are the best interviews — people would get on a roll, and it was kind of informal in that sense."

He started by interviewing several people whose interviews led him to other people. Soon, Lewis had amassed a collection of stories and voices.

"From my perspective as an amateur community organizer, I think Sean has done a really great job of going into the Southeast Side and talking to people and doing interviews with all sorts of people from all different walks of life in Iowa City," said Robert Gutsche, a University of Iowa doctoral student in journalism and mass communication who studies controversies surrounding the Southeast Side.

Martin Andrews, a producing director of the Working Group Theater, plays a set of characters including an open-minded and progressive Iowa Citian, a principal of a local high school, a Chicago housing authority, a college student, and a puppet, "Mister Briefcase."

He said the most interesting part of the process was when Lewis conducted workshops with the actors, giving them characters and settings and having them improvise scenes and lines.

"There was sort of a danger in the room, because you don't talk about race very much, and he was asking us to improvise on it — to just go with what we felt our character was feeling," he said. "It was really great to go there with my fellow actors, both black and white, and just go into that territory and see what we found."

Fawcett, who also plays various characters, said when she takes on the role of someone whom she has met in real life, she doesn't try to imitate that person.

"I'm trying to create a new character, but I'm obviously influenced by what I know," she said. "It's a bit intimidating knowing that the real person could be in the audience. You hope that you do them justice."

Although he has only seen a few scenes from the play, Gutsche said the production succeeds in presenting these characters who are based on real Iowa City residents. To him, the play has a journalistic quality that comes from the characters and the language of the play having roots in reality.

"It's trying to get to a sense of accuracy, maybe not objectivity, but accuracy in how words are spoken and how honesty can be expressed," Gutsche said. "I would say there's a real journalistic element to the play, and I think that gives it a lot of legitimacy and authority."

Questioning our community

Hancher Programming Director Jacob Yarrow said the issues portrayed in Mayberry apply to Iowa City and to a larger global scale.

"I think the subject matter and themes of race and class and how communities form and exist in our country are relevant pretty much all around the world and definitely throughout the U.S.," he said.

The culture clash in the play permeates several areas of daily life — including school systems, bus systems, and housing. The characters on stage allow the different arguments from all sides to be heard.

"I think this play gives you the opportunity to walk in other people's shoes," Fawcett said. "It doesn't give answers, because it's a really complex situation, and there's not a right and a wrong."

Andrews said the production raises many questions about the Iowa City community.

"I think the major issues are how does a community accept? How does a community respond? And what does a community learn about itself when it deals with others?" he said. "How do you incorporate them into the life of the city? How do you make them feel welcome? How do you teach them about your values and how do you understand theirs?"

Although the show raises many issues, Lewis said, he isn't trying to convey a single message to his audience.

"The show was made so much from listening that I feel like I got taught a lot, so it feels weird to be like, 'This is what I'm going to show you, Iowa City,' " he said.

Serving a community purpose

Everyone involved in Mayberry said the production's main goal is to spark further discussion about acknowledging diversity in Iowa City.

"I think it's important to get some kind of dialogue going about race and economics," Andrews said. "Pretending that it's not there or feeling guilty about it isn't going to help anything. Having a conversation is probably the best thing we can do."

Educating and providing a platform for numerous voices are also important to those involved with the piece.

"I think the goal of the play is to give people the opportunity to learn about the people who they would consider 'other,' " Fawcett said.

As long as the audience has a reaction to the material, the actors said, they will be happy.

"We welcome whatever response people will have," Andrews said. "I think as long as you're seeking to tell the human story, I think people will find a way to connect to it, but it's always up to the audience for how they respond to the story."

The fast ticket sales before the play's opening seems to indicate that the community is interested in the topic.

"Everyone who's in the play and everyone who is going to come see this play are the people who actually own this town," Lewis said. "Owning sounds so possessive like, 'I get to decide who comes here,' but it's not about that. It's actually a great responsibility, because it means that you are responsible for the future of the town."

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