On Thursday, June 23rd, a number of Facing History staff based in New England had the rich opportunity to attend Melia Bensussen and Kirsten Greenidge’s riveting new play Common Ground Revisited at the Boston Center for the Arts. The play is a creative response to J. Anthony Lukas’ seminal book Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families which delivers what is often regarded as the definitive account of the contentious period in the 1970s in which busing was used as a strategy to drive school desegregation in Boston. Bensussen and Greenidge’s play thickens the plot considerably, however, as they deconstruct the book’s contents in real time—playing, replaying, and remixing scenes from the book.
Operating on numerous levels at once, the play tracks back and forth between the history described in Lukas’ account, various ways that key historical actors may have experienced those events that Lukas did not capture, and the different ways that contemporary Bostonians relate to these historical events. Throughout, the actors break the fourth wall to ponder the fidelity, reliability, and legitimacy of the stories Lukas’ book tells and, by extension, the stories that give Bostonians a sense of the past, the present, and themselves. In addition to the process of meta reflection that runs throughout the play, Bensussen and Greenidge center the experiences of three real families who played different roles in these events—a working-class Black family, a working-class white family, and a wealthy white couple dedicated to advancing school desegregation. In so doing, Bensussen and Greenidge offer a closer look at the 1970s Boston Desegregation and Busing Crisis in a way that provokes curiosity, deepens empathy, and is not constrained by us-versus-them simplifications. With an immensely talented cast of only twelve actors playing numerous roles each, Bensussen and Greenidge’s cast delivers an engaging, fast-paced experience that is, at once, emotionally resonant and intellectually demanding, helping the viewer to examine this single history from a number of different vantage points.
In many ways, Bensussen and Greenidge’s treatment of Common Ground recalls Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s viral TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” in which she illustrates the importance of loosening one’s attachment to singular narratives to allow room for more complex and nuanced pictures of ourselves and others to emerge. It should be said that in disrupting single stories, however, Common Ground Revisited does not merely call for its audience to just get along and extend more empathy to those benefiting from oppressive systems without issuing a greater challenge. An unmistakable feature of the play is that it implores the audience to reckon with the historical and continuing impact of racism, white supremacy, and profound socioeconomic inequalities in the Greater Boston area.
Despite the decades that have elapsed since the Boston Desegregation and Busing Crisis, that historical moment and some of its central themes have played integral roles in the development of Facing History. Margot Stern Strom founded Facing History in the immediate aftermath of these events, noting the level of discord and strife that was visible across the Boston metropolitan area. Those particular concerns informed the development of the organization’s first case study which explored a number of related dimensions of human behavior using the Holocaust as a point of departure. In honor of this history and in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Boston schools, Facing History is preparing to offer new lessons and resources that empower educators to teach this history.
But the connections between this particular history and Facing History do not end there. In an exclusive conversation with Facing History staff after the play, Greenidge revealed that she was, in fact, an intern at Facing History earlier in her career where she aided the development of our case study Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement—and that the fundamental lessons that she gained from that experience have played a key role in the development of her values and career as someone who uses art to promote social change.
Facing History invites educators to bring this transformative work to the young people in their communities from Boston to California. A great place to start is our unit on “the danger of a single story” which is designed to get students thinking more expansively about themselves and others.