When “Common Ground” was published in 1985, it was immediately clear that J. Anthony Lukas’s deep dive into the convulsive story of race, class, and conflict during Boston’s 1970s busing crisis had brought forth a landmark book.
Robert J. Orchard, then the managing director at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, believed it could be even more than that. Why not adapt “Common Ground” for the stage, harnessing the power and immediacy of live performance to dramatize one of the most wrenching chapters of Boston’s history, and then present the world premiere here?
The idea intrigued Lukas, a theater connoisseur who had immersed himself so deeply in this city while researching his book that he had come to view Boston as his “real home.” But only now, nearly four decades later, is a stage adaptation finally set to premiere, titled “Common Ground Revisited,” long after the deaths of Lukas and two central figures in his book, Rachel L. Twymon and Alice E. McGoff.
Very rarely does an artistic endeavor carry this much sociopolitical and civic baggage, such a weight of expectations. The narrative behind the long journey of “Common Ground Revisited” illustrates the complexity of making theater out of a story that cuts as close to the bone as this one does, at least for Boston. Notably, the perspective of a Black playwright, Kirsten Greenidge, has now been brought to bear on that story. That word “Revisited” in the title signals not just the structure of the play but its ambitions.
“I hope people are able to revisit that history, and think about how that history informs how we live in Boston today,” Greenidge said last week in an interview with the Globe. “Boston has a lot of reckoning to do with the past, and race.”
Greenidge, who grew up in the Boston area and is one of the city’s leading dramatists, has woven issues of race, class, and identity throughout character portraits in earlier works like “Luck of the Irish.” She co-conceived “Common Ground Revisited” with her “Luck of the Irish” collaborator, director Melia Bensussen.
For more than a decade, the pair has been wrestling Lukas’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic into theatrical form, drawing from the author’s interview notes as well as the book. Greenidge has written and rewritten the script for the two-act drama, and is still working on it.
In fact, the playwright expects to do even more revisions after a Huntington Theatre Company production of “Common Ground Revisited” begins four weeks of performances May 27 at the Calderwood Pavilion and the creative team starts absorbing audience reactions.
Lukas’s book chronicles the turmoil that surrounded the court-ordered busing in the mid-1970s designed to desegregate the Boston public schools. Even today, the city battles a national reputation for racism cemented by televised images of white protesters throwing rocks at school buses filled with Black children.
Lukas told the story of busing through the experiences of Twymon and her children, who are Black and moved from Roxbury in 1971 to the Methunion Manor complex in the South End; McGoff and her children, who are white and lived in Charlestown; and Colin and Joan Diver, white parents who moved to the South End but ultimately chose to leave the city. Twymon, McGoff, and the Divers are all characters in the play, as are Rachel E. Twymon, daughter of Rachel L. Twymon, and Lisa McGoff Collins, daughter of Alice McGoff.
“All the families in the book lived and loved and worked in Boston,” observed playwright Greenidge, “but they’re not telling the same story.”
A surprising new chapter was added to the Twymon family story last year when Rachel E. Twymon went public with the news of her reunion with the son she gave up for adoption as a young girl: Tito Jackson, a former Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate.
In February, Twymon and Jackson attended a reading of “Common Ground Revisited,” as did the Divers. (Collins was invited but did not attend, according to the Huntington.)
In an interview Friday, Twymon was strongly critical of that version of the play, contending it soft-pedaled the ugliness of the busing era. “You can’t make things nice. It’s not a nice story,” said Twymon, who was a middle-schooler bused from the South End to Charlestown during the time frame covered in the book. “So I don’t understand why they did it the way that they did. That’s how the play comes across, that everything was hunky-dory. It wasn’t.”
In an e-mail Tuesday, Joan Diver said of the play: “We thought it had promise, but were aware it was just a draft and still needed work. We are looking forward to seeing how it evolves.”
That evolution has already been a long and painstaking one. “Common Ground Revisited” was originally scheduled to open in the spring of 2021, but the pandemic short-circuited that plan.
At least in terms of its political power structure, the Boston of today differs markedly from the Boston of the 1970s. For the first time in the city’s history, the mayor’s office is occupied by a woman and a person of color voted into office, Michelle Wu — following another woman of color, Kim Janey, who served as acting mayor. The Boston City Council, all white in the mid-1970s, today is more diverse than it has ever been, with six people of color and eight women.
But no one — certainly not Greenidge or Bensussen — pretends that racism does not still fester in Boston, does not still claim casualties in a variety of ways.
While reluctant to go into too much detail about “Common Ground Revisited,” they say it will feature 12 characters in all — seven women and five men, half of them Black, half of them white. The cast includes some of Boston’s best-known stage performers, including Karen MacDonald, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Marianna Bassham, Kadahj Bennett, and Omar Robinson. The action will flow back and forth in time: Greenidge said scenes or moments will take place in periods as various as 1943, 1968, 1974, 1977, and 2022.
In earlier iterations of the play, Lukas himself was to be portrayed by an actor, with other characters responding to the author’s depictions of them in the book. Lukas is not in the current version, but actors will be portraying such key figures as Boston Mayor Kevin H. White; Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.; city councilor and busing foe Louise Day Hicks; and singer James Brown.
While Greenidge and Bensussen expressed deep admiration for Lukas’s overall achievement, they say “Common Ground Revisited” will be informed by the history that has subsequently unfolded and the perspectives of the present day.
“We’re holding up a mirror to this city, and to this moment,” said Bensussen. “We’re not telling the whole story of the book. We are using this brilliant work of history as a point of discussion, of conversation. It was one writer, one book, one moment. What hasn’t been truly looked at, so our city and our communities can move forward?”
“If we’ve done our job right,” added Greenidge, “you’ll see many different vantage points in the piece. With the families, we’ve tried to present them with as much complexity and humanity as all humans have.”
Collins, who was a high school student in the time frame covered in the book, did not reply to requests this month for an interview. But in 2020 she told the Globe: “I really hope the play doesn’t make out Charlestown to be racist. We were just trying to keep our traditions going. There were racists in Charlestown, but we weren’t racists. The families were put in a situation that was very hard to break out of.”
In a telephone interview last week, Colin and Joan Diver expressed confidence that Greenidge and Bensussen are intent on fair and accurate depictions. “The genius of Tony [Lukas] is that he presented all of us in three dimensions,” Colin Diver said. “I’m trusting and hoping that Kirsten and Melia are going to preserve the three-dimensionality of the portrayal.”
So why has it taken so long to bring “Common Ground” to the stage? The answer has partly to do with the sheer complexity of the undertaking, and partly to do with the fact that — after the wheels were set in motion for “Common Ground Revisited” a decade ago — the development of the play coincided with the career ascents of playwright Greenidge and director Bensussen.
Back in the mid-1980s, the conversations between Lukas and Orchard did not move beyond the informal stage. Then, in 1990, “Common Ground” was adapted into a two-part TV drama that aired on CBS, starring Jane Curtin as Alice McGoff, CCH Pounder as Rachel L. Twymon, Richard Thomas as Colin Diver, and Mary Kane as Joan Diver.
Two decades passed. Twymon died in 1990. Lukas, who had long battled depression, died by suicide in 1997. McGoff died in 2010.
In the years after Lukas’s death, Orchard had begun conversations with Linda Healey, the author’s widow, about a stage adaptation. Healey was receptive to the idea. (”Tony would love to see this on the stage,” she said last week.)
In 2010, those conversations grew more serious. In September of that year came the debut of ArtsEmerson, a theater organization that Orchard founded under the auspices of Emerson College.
The next year, Orchard asked Bensussen, the head of Emerson’s performing arts department, to take a look at “Common Ground,” telling her the book had promise as a “theatrical event.” She decided to get the students of her theatrical-adaptation class involved, and invited Greenidge to co-teach the class. Two public performances of the Emerson class project were presented in December 2011, with members of the families among the audience. ArtsEmerson later ceded the lead role to the Huntington because, according to Orchard, it was “an expensive project to develop and perform and we thought the Huntington had the resources to do it fully.”
Meanwhile, Greenidge was becoming a nationally known dramatist, juggling multiple commissions while turning out play after play. Indeed, just last month, her “Our Daughters, Like Pillars” premiered at the Huntington. Bensussen, after years as an in-demand director at theaters in Boston and beyond, took on the responsibility of running a major regional theater when she was named artistic director of Hartford Stage in 2019.
But “Common Ground Revisited” was never far from their thoughts. “No matter what else was going on, we would check in with each other about this,” said Bensussen.
Orchard, the original driving force behind the theatrical adaptation, is now 75, retired from ArtsEmerson, and convinced that “Common Ground” is more relevant — and necessary — than ever.
“I think it’s important for Boston to know of its historic struggles, that these were sincere, deep struggles, and they’re still there, in different ways,” he said.
Playwright Greenidge is now preparing to see years of labor finally realized onstage. As she has striven to capture the individual and collective struggles of the busing era and connect them to those of today, she has kept the image evoked by Lukas’s title in her mind.
“When I hear the term common ground, I think of individuals standing on the same piece of land,” she said. “But they’re not all telling the same story.”