“And my mom called me and said, ‘You gots to escape Chicago honey and come to Iowa. It’s like
Mayberry out here.’ And I said, ‘Mom! There ain’t no black folks in Mayberry.’”
From that concept came a play. From that quote came a title.
Sean Christopher Lewis and his Working Group Theatre colleagues in Iowa City have spent two years interviewing, drafting and crafting “Mayberry,” a theatrical look at how an influx of urban blacks has impacted a Midwestern college town. As in Chicago to Iowa City.
The play that snowballed from controversy, headlines, online comments and interviews will premiere as a Hancher commission Thursday. That show, which was added just last week, and the originally scheduled performances on Friday through Sunday (4/27-29), at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City are all sold out. Tickets are still available for a fifth recently added show on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Eight actors of various ethnicities will tell the universal stories of local people, gleaned from 50 to 100 full and partial interviews folded into the kind of documentary drama in which the young theatrical troupe specializes.
“It has a lot of verbatim monologues and two narrative storylines we follow — one of a kid who moved from Chicago, is living in Iowa City now, and how he’s adjusting and is drawn back to the Chicago he’s trying to get away from,” Lewis says.
“Another is a fourth-hand story I heard of a girl easily described as quite liberal, working to help these families who come from Chicago, but her own liberal beliefs get challenged.
“We have a lot of music, a lot of manipulations of the set. We’re trying to find as many exciting and interesting ways to create a city onstage, tear it up and recreate it in new and exciting ways.”
It’s not just an Iowa City story, but a window into what is happening across largely white Iowa.
“The changing dynamics of this state is one of the major reasons we started this theater company,” says Lewis, 32, a New York native living in Iowa City since 2004. “We kept seeing how West Liberty and Columbus Junction are changing. What’s happening in Iowa City is not different from what’s happening in Des Moines with displaced populations. We just found it really fascinating.”
The show’s target audience is “everyone who lives in Iowa,” he says, with subsequent performances planned in Grinnell in early May and Council Bluffs next year. All will bear the Hancher stamp.
“I would love to tour throughout the state,” he says. “The issues are not isolated to Iowa City.”
Lewis, a 2007 graduate of the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop, has spent much of his career developing shows around hot-button issues. He talks to people on both sides, hoping to break down barriers and foster conversations about topics people are willing to discuss at home, but not in public.
“Mayberry” goes “way beyond race,” he says. “That’s the trick. Initially, the issue is black families moving from Chicago, but other issues from the community get dug up. Class comes up a lot in this show, and both sides of the liberal and conservative ideologies.
“When you talk about social services, distribution of wealth, education and schools, race might be what started the conversation to happen,” he says, “but this goes to other core value issues, not just ‘your kid is black and goes to my school, and my kid is white.’”
Working Group Theatre, a resident professional company based at Riverside Theatre, has ventured into community-based theater on previous outings.
Lewis’ award-winning solo show, “Killadelphia,” grew from interviews with inmates and victims of violent crime in Philadelphia. Working Group’s “Rust” collaboration tells the story of Michigan autoworkers after their General Motors plant closed. Lewis and his wife , Jennifer Fawcett, traveled to Rwanda last summer to create a play with youths orphaned through genocide. This season, Working Group staged “Telling: Iowa City,” part of a nationwide theatrical movement giving voice to local veterans of U.S. military conflicts past and present.
Lewis wanted to give that same kind of voice to Iowa City and its burgeoning population of urban immigrants, in light of vast media coverage in print and online about the change, conflict and controversy it’s created.
“The comment sections were exploding with the Press Citizen and The Gazette,” Lewis says. “With one article, the rhetoric was really inflammatory on both sides, conservative and liberal. But no one was really having a conversation — they were just posting. That made me start thinking about how well do I know my city. I didn’t realize there was a problem.
“Most projects I do to learn about something,” says. “I thought I should learn what this was all about.”
He brought the idea to Jacob Yarrow, Hancher’s programming director, who attended an afternoon performance of “Killadelphia” at City High School two years ago.
“It was a wonderful play,” Yarrow, 40, of Iowa City, says. “From there, he and I talked about other possibilities to work together.”
Lewis’ vision dovetailed with Hancher’s interest in establishing arts residency activities at the Broadway Community Center, in the heart of Iowa City’s most visible neighborhood embroiled in transitional challenges.
“Sean had talked to the same people about creating a play about the Broadway neighborhood, so we started talking about what those theatrical possibilities might be,” Yarrow says.
From there, the idea went to the rest of the Hancher staff and evolved into a commission, which gave Working Group Theatre $50,000 to devote to research, development, production and artist fees.
“It’s been a two-year process leading up to the debut of ‘Mayberry,’” Yarrow says.
And a two-year learning process for Lewis.
He employed lessons he learned the hard way in Philadelphia.
“You almost always need an invitation,” he says. “When I first started, I thought I could just show up and start interviewing people. I realized that’s idiotic.”
This time, he reached out to a teacher at Elizabeth Tate, Iowa City’s alternative high school, to introduce him to people at the Broadway Community Center.
“After that initial interview, then you’ll have five people who want to talk to you, then it just starts spiraling,” he says.
People were willing to talk, teaching him every step of the way.
“Every interview was surprising,” Lewis says. “I interviewed a pretty large selection of people. Interviews are funny. When you think ‘I bet this is what I’m going to hear,’ you’re always proven wrong.
“I sat down early-on with a group of blacks from Chicago who go to Tate. I’d throw out a question to see what their response would be,” he says. “I kept thinking their homes in Chicago were torn down; they don’t want to be here; they’ve met a lot of racism; in a part of the country that’s more white, they feel uncomfortable. But no. A few fell into that, but I was surprised most don’t mind it at all.
“They’re having a good time being here. They say they feel safe. My initial assumptions have been completely destroyed,” he says.
“I talked to older, longtime Iowa City residents. I thought a lot would come down to value issues and stereotypes. I was proved wrong. I thought they’d say ‘they’re loud’ or ‘they do this or do that,’ based on stereotypes,” he says. “That happened occasionally, but most of that has been wiped away.
“Now it comes down to specific issues, an idea of investment. What’s their investment in the community?”
He found the longtime residents were “totally fine with people moving here,” but wanted to know what they’ll give back to their new community. The prevailing attitude was, “If it’s nothing, I don’t want anything to do with them. If they’re giving back, I’m happy to help them.”
“People bring up things I haven’t thought about,” Lewis says. “It goes to the general things we’re always curious about. We as human beings have so much information around us all the time (via newspapers and other media). It makes us think like we’re experts on everything.
“People point at a school and say, ‘That’s a problem school,’ but once you start talking, it changes that perception,” he says.
“When you sit down and talk to them, it really does change everything.”
– Diana Nollen
- What: Hancher presents “Mayberry,” by Working Group Theatre
- When: SOLD OUT: 7:30 p.m. April 26, 27 and 28, 2 p.m. April 29; ADDED PERFORMANCE: 2 p.m. April 28
- Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St, Iowa City
- Tickets: $10 to $25 at Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/tickets.html
- Information: Hancher.uiowa.edu/events/mayberry.html
- Artists’ websites: Seanchristopherlewis.com and Workinggrouptheatre.org