A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Mar 2, 2011
Each place we live shapes us, leaves its mark on us somehow. Playwright Eric Theis has called Oakland, Milwaukee and now Madison home, and this succession of locations has produced an interesting result: Riverwest: A Rhapsody!
Theis describes the work, his first production with Broom Street Theater that runs March 4–April 10, as “part musical, part social commentary, part experiment in the art of theater.” It’s about the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee, a precise setting Theis uses to explore race, privilege, gentrification and more.
Talkback sessions on the play’s themes will take place after each Sunday performance. But Theis also took time to answer a few questions about this unique production.
How did the idea for this show come about?
I got the idea for the show after moving out of Riverwest and into the east side of Madison. It was then that I realized how unique the neighborhood was, for good and for bad.
What was your experience with the Riverwest neighborhood?
I lived in Riverwest off and on for four years between 2005 and 2009. My wife and I moved to Milwaukee as a compromise between Chicago and Madison; boy, were we in for a surprise! We had friends who lived in Riverwest and at first considered it sort of like the hippie, local business feel of the east side of Madison (the local co-op is quite similar to the former Mifflin Street Co-op), except with a bombed-out inner city running into it. We moved from Oakland, California, so were used to having neighbors of every color, but there was a visible line—Holton Avenue—that divided the white from black. Inside Riverwest were the people holding on to their homes while simultaneously holding on to an integrated neighborhood. We had learned about gentrification from college students and poor activists. But now we had become them.
Why did you choose a musical as the format for this story?
Riverwest is a very musical piece of Milwaukee, by nature. There are natural springs of musicians and artists. Buskers and Baptists are just a part of the fabric.
Through whom is the story told?
There is not one protagonist, but there is one story I tried to overshadow others, that of a young black man faced with difficult decisions between family life and thug life.
Why is race an important theme for you?
When we lived in California we participated in a two- or three-month Challenge White Supremacy workshop. My wife and I started as peace activists but grew into more radical racial justice advocates after doing some intense work within ourselves (which still continues) and working hand in hand with some amazing organizations fighting for racial equality (Education Not Incarceration, Copwatch, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, etc.). Race has continued to be an important theme for me for the simple fact that it doesn’t have to be a theme for me; I could just walk on oblivious to my privileges and almost no one would question that. But we as white folks have an upper hand that many of us don’t want to admit. It is incredibly hard to admit others are suffering because of gains you have.
What do you hope audiences get from seeing this work?
I hope audiences get a chance to participate. I have a tendency to hit audiences over the head with my personal politics, but I hope and hope and hope that I have excised enough proselytizing to allow for personal discovery. The show really is about that personal journey that each audience member must take for themselves. It goes somewhere I cannot go, and maybe that’s part of the experiment.
Riverwest: A Rhapsody! runs March 4–April 10 at Broom Street Theater. For more information, visit bstonline.org.
Image courtesy of Eric Theis.