There’s often a choral quality to Kirsten Greenidge’s plays, a sense that she believes the stories worth telling are best told collectively.
A writer who’s always been drawn to issues of race and class and family, Greenidge likes to populate the stage to near-overflowing, then filter events through the resulting multiplicity of voices and points of view.
That ambitious scope can come at the cost of clarity and dramatic momentum, as it sometimes does in the Huntington Theatre Company premiere of “Common Ground Revisited,” in which a dozen actors play dozens of characters.
But Greenidge’s willingness to take a chance that her reach will exceed her grasp makes her the right playwright to tackle a tale as sprawling and tangled as the 1970s busing crisis in Boston — and what came before, and, crucially, what came after.
Co-conceived and directed by Melia Bensussen, “Common Ground Revisited” has a complicated relationship to its source material, J. Anthony Lukas’s monumental, Pulitzer-winning 1985 book “Common Ground.”
Greenidge and Bensussen clearly have great respect for Lukas’s achievement, but “Common Ground Revisited” nonetheless fits within the growing number of theatrical works that seek to challenge dominant narratives and force a rethinking of the past.
Lukas, who died in 1997, was white. Greenidge is Black, and her perspective informs “Common Ground Revisited” throughout. When civil rights leader Ruth Batson (Elle Borders) notes crisply in the play that “There is more than one book,” it is clearly something the playwright wants us to keep in mind.
During a discussion of the ways that “Common Ground” has come to be seen as the definitive book about Boston, an unnamed present-day Black character played by Shanaé Burch says: “The stories, the history . . . I don’t see the hope.”
She is among a group of present-day Bostonians, Black and white, who are gathered in a classroom, sifting through the incidents, social context, meaning, and lessons of the busing era. As they do, the play frequently flashes back to three families swept up in the turmoil of the mid-1970s, when federal judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered that busing be implemented to desegregate the city’s schools.
Black South End resident Rachel Twymon (Shannon Lamb, channeling Twymon’s iron will) is determined that her daughters, Cassandra (Borders) and Rachel Jr. (Burch), will get an education. Bused to Charlestown schools, the girls are among the Black students on the receiving end of abuse from white students and parents. “We roll up on the first day and get rocks thrown at us?” Cassandra says incredulously. “By grownups?”
White Charlestown resident Alice McGoff (Amanda Collins) and her daughter Lisa (Marianna Bassham) devote their energies to anti-busing protests, believing that the cohesion and identity of their neighborhood is at stake.
(The larger economic context is summarized by an unnamed present-day white character played by Bassham: “But maybe, if you improve everyone’s circumstances, you don’t have the most disadvantaged fighting over scraps. Schools with old textbooks, crumbling walls, those are scraps. And Boston has Black, white, and everyone in between fighting over leftovers.”)
Then there are Joan and Colin Diver (Stacy Fischer and Michael Kaye), an idealistic white couple whose commitment to racial progress prompts them to move to the South End with their two sons, but who eventually decide, after episodes of crime in the neighborhood, to relocate to the suburbs.
Rounding out the Huntington cast is a talented cadre that includes Kadahj Bennett (he plays Richard Twymon, son of Rachel Sr., among other characters), Karen MacDonald, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Omar Robinson, and Matthew Bretschneider.
Many figures from the busing era and other periods of Boston history make appearances in “Common Ground Revisited,” including Mayor Kevin H. White, fierce busing foe Louise Day Hicks, and City Councilor Thomas I. Atkins, who — in a step viewed as helping to prevent riots in Boston after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King — negotiates an agreement to have a concert by James Brown televised by WGBH.
Greenidge delivers snapshots of pervasive racism in Boston. There’s the everyday kind, such as when the Twymon family, after seeing a production at the Shubert Theatre of “Hello, Dolly!” starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, are unable to get a cab to take them home. And there’s the horrific kind that made national news, such as the infamous attack (we see its prelude and aftermath) on Black attorney Theodore Landsmark by a white youth wielding a flagpole containing an American flag.
There are times when Greenidge’s scrupulosity and zeal as a researcher eclipse her instincts as a dramatist and you wonder whether this or that character really needs to be shoehorned into the story, or when “Common Ground Revisited” all too literally mirrors the classroom where it is set, as characters volley historical facts and figures back and forth.
But “Common Ground Revisited” succeeds in its larger goal — the one alluded to in its title — of getting us to think not just about a hugely influential book but about how Boston then shaped Boston now. It’s not often that a play dives this deep into a city’s history, and even rarer that one sets out to foster the kind of dialogue that could — should — help that city better understand itself.
“Truth about Boston?” says a present-day Black character played by Bennett. “Keep digging. You want one truth about Boston that’s the same for everybody? That’s going to be the biggest Big Dig you will ever see.”
COMMON GROUND REVISITED
Conceived by Melia Bensussen and Kirsten Greenidge. Adapted by Greenidge. Directed by Bensussen. Based in part on and inspired by “Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families,” by J. Anthony Lukas. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through July 3. Digital access to the filmed performance available through July 17. Tickets to in-person and digital performances $25-$125. At 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org