"Some years ago I visited the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Long enough ago that I remember only one thing from the visit: a row of red lunch counter stools. A few Mondays ago when we gathered on the partially built set for the first reading of Best Of Enemies, my eyes immediately picked out one detail from the visual clutter of construction materials and tools, props and scripts and lighting instruments and people. A row of red lunch counter stools.
|Red barstools on the Best of Enemies set|
Greensboro, North Carolina is 54 miles down Interstate 85 and US Highway 70 from Durham, just under an hour if you drive the speed limit. That distance and eleven years were all that separated the historic Woolworth department store sit-ins from the less well remembered civil rights battle reconstructed here on our stage.
Why do those red stools in particular have such power for me? A few things preoccupied me in my growing-up years in suburban Calgary, that stood in vivid contrast to a pretty near idyllic childhood of banana bikes, Batman comics, Monkees records and kick the can. Nuclear bombs, and stories of people surviving the end of civilization. The Holocaust. And the American chaos I saw on the TV: black people beaten and lynched, Watts and Detroit burning, angry students swarming college campuses, bodies coming home from Vietnam. Perhaps those images and stories gripped my attention precisely because they were such a surreal contrast to my quiet, safe daily life. But it did seem like the world was ending.
Only as I write these notes does it strike me how these things eventually manifested themselves in my art, and in my artistic direction, decades later. Remnant, and The Top Ten Thousand Of All Time. Refuge Of Lies, The Quarrel, even Talley's Folly in the shadow of anti-Semitism. That quintessential Pacific Theatre show Cotton Patch Gospel grew out of the soil of the Civil Rights Movement, from Koinonia Farm's quiet, costly stand against racism in rural Georgia. We're not an issue-based theatre, so I'd never say these themes have been constantly front and centre. But as this play takes shape on our stage, I instantly trace a direct line back to my childhood nightmares, and a suburban white kid's quiet obsession with trying to come to grips with unthinkable evil.
As the Watts riots raged, Noah Purifoy gathered the detritus of a city breaking down - neon signs, the metal from ruined vehicles, shards of wood and brick from broken buildings, a busted, hollow TV set - and made art. These assemblages were a way to mark what had happened, to re-member what had been dismembered. To create something like beauty, or perhaps just to ensure that the story of what happened would not be forgotten.
Set designer Sandy Margaret seeks to honour Purifoy's work as she assembles a world where this particular story can be lived out in our midsts, lunch counter stools and all. North Carolina was on the other side of the country from Watts, and their traumas seemed the other side of the universe from my suburban childhood in Calgary, or our safe Vancouver vantage point half a century later. But once a thing has happened, it leaves a story. And those stories must be remembered. And when artists remember, they make art.
And as far away and as long ago as these stories may be, the terrible realities they manifested are still entirely with us, even here. The past hasn't really passed, and perhaps re-membering our old stories might reshape the stories we are living now."
Get Best of Enemies tickets here. Runs Feb 28-Mar 21.