Stanford Theater: Race Relations 101

A collaboration between the university and troubled East Palo Alto helps bridge a historic town-gown divide

FOR students at elite Stanford University in Palo Alto, the adjoining town of East Palo Alto has always been the other side of the tracks, or more literally, the other side of the freeway.

Until not so long ago, the largely African-American and Hispanic-populated town was known mostly for Whiskey Gulch, a stretch of liquor stores where students could evade strict anti-alcohol rules on campus. More recently, East Palo Alto was the site of shootouts between drug gangs that earned it, in 1992, the dubious distinction of having the nation's highest per capita murder rate.

But an unusual theater program is helping bridge the gap between town and gown. The project complements a larger transformation taking place in East Palo Alto in which economic development and community policing have turned around many of the city's maladies.

The collaboration between Stanford students and faculty and city leaders and residents has resulted in the production, last month, of two original one-act dramas portraying the history and life of East Palo Alto, along with a video documentary.

The two one-act plays - "Circle in the Dirt" and "Dancing on the Brink" - featured casts drawn from both the campus and the community. The documentary and the research to develop the productions, which played to packed houses in East Palo Alto and Stanford, will be used as educational tools.

"Nobody expected anyone to come," recalls Walter Matherly, a middle-aged East Palo Alto resident who both acted and served as community liaison for the project, "but on the first night the house was jammed. The East Palo Alto cast members, their brows were knit, as if to say, 'Now what are we going to do.' "

Joaquin Torres, a Stanford junior, joined the project as an actor, motivated in part by the desire to learn more about his neighbors. "The Stanford community is so white - East Palo Alto is a big shock," he says. By participating, he now sees the city differently from the way most Stanford students do. "I was surprised by the richness of history, the combination of race and culture," he says.

The project was the inspiration of Stanford drama professor Harry J. Elam Jr., who heads the university's Committee on Black Performing Arts. It is based on the "research to performance" method pioneered some 20 years ago at Brown University by two African-American studies professors, Rhett S. Jones and George Houston Bass, who studied a neighboring community in Providence, R.I., and then produced plays about it.

Professor Elam began by sending letters to all 5,000 households in East Palo Alto inviting them to a meeting in early 1993 to discuss the project. Only a handful showed up, so Elam shifted course and formed the East Palo Alto Project with community leaders, city council members, and local activists. They tried to make it as diverse as the community itself - a third black, a third Hispanic, with a large community of Pacific Islanders, as well as whites and others.

Because of the mix of the community, they decided to commission two playwrights, one black, one Latino, each of whom would write one-act plays. Charles "OyamO" Gordon, the author of "Dancing on the Brink," is a University of Michigan drama professor and acclaimed playwright. Cherrie Moraga, author of "A Circle in the Dirt," is an award-winning playwright, poet, and teacher.

One of the challenges was "how to empower the community and yet raise questions that are unkind to the community, things the community might not want to hear," says Elam. Gordon's early drafts, for example, "seemed more antagonistic to the community," he says, focusing on drugs and crime.

In one scene, two white Stanford students looking for an apartment in East Palo Alto are accosted by a gang of Latino youths. In response to criticism that this was a caricature of the community and of Stanford students, the playwright added a scene in which a narrator identifies this as an exaggeration intended to make a sardonic point.

The resulting plays are rich in community history and culture. "A Circle in the Dirt" uses the dismantling of a closed high school and a housing project to make way for a shopping center to focus on the interplay between the different ethnic groups.

The play touches particularly on Latino community, including the tensions between blacks and the newer immigrants. "We can't speak the same language," a character says. "It's natural we stay with our own people."

"Dancing on the Brink" is dramatically more powerful, framed by the dream of a chief of the Ohlone, the Indian tribe that originally inhabited this area. It slides across time, showing the panoply of peoples that has lived here, from Spanish priests, to Chinese laborers, Irish workers, the blacks who came after the war, and now the Latinos and Tongans. All are engaged in a struggle over "who owns the land," the playwright contends. "The citizens of East Palo Alto are as divided as the Ohlone once were," a narrator warns, but they can "unite to win."

Alongside the dramatic projects, a video oral history of East Palo Alto was begun. Seventy hours of interviews were edited into an hour-long film and formed much of the research base for the two plays.

THE project has come to fruition as the small city has begun to shake its often difficult history. East Palo Alto has been an island of relative poverty in the stretch of communities from San Francisco to Silicon Valley. Until 1983 it was unincorporated, subject to annexations of chunks of prime land by its affluent neighbors in Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

Now East Palo Alto sees a path to join the boom around it through construction of a huge shopping center. The development promises to bring both jobs and a tax base.

At the same time, the city has carried out an much-praised experiment in community policing, with the support of neighboring police departments. The number of murders has fallen from a 1992 high of 42 to just four this year. Real estate dealers are circling the city looking to snap up some its tidy homes - perhaps the most telling sign of its revival.

"We have struggled through some extremely difficult times," says Bob Hoover, a black community activist who has lived here since 1960. "We had a dream in the early '60s to build a quality community. And we are on the verge of making that come true."

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