Pittsfield symposium inspired by premiere of new play, 'American Son'

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PITTSFIELD — Barrington Stage Company Artistic Director Julianne Boyd said she suspected even before staged dramatic readings of "American Son" were held in Pittsfield last year that the new play would provoke a communitywide discussion of issues roiling around race, bias and culture in the United States.

The award-winning drama, which was commissioned by Roz and Charles Stuzin and the theater company, is by playwright Christopher Demos-Brown. It examines the nation's racial divide through the eyes of an estranged, interracial couple as they deal a crisis involving their son and the police.

Following the initial readings, "the discussions were very interesting," Boyd said last week. The "across the board" consensus, she said, was that the theater company had to do something to involve the entire community.

"We had a really great discussion," she said. "I learned a lot, and I thought: 'We have to do this play and I want community involvement.' "

The result was a free weekend symposium planned for July 2-3, involving three panel discussions, as well as related events like a conversation with the playwright at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the company's St. Germain Stage and a special matinee performance for area youth.

The theater company, public school and city officials, and others from organizations in the Berkshires are collaborating in the symposium next month at the BSC Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at 30 Union St.

The free event is titled "Race, Bias and Culture in Present-Day America."

Boyd said engaging the community in issues relevant to contemporary society and to the Berkshires has always been one of her goals for BSC, and the new work should certainly inspire those discussions.

Shirley Edgerton, the cultural proficiency coach in the Pittsfield Public Schools, who will participate in a panel discussion on institutional racism, said it's always important to Boyd to "bring real life to us in the Berkshires and to create a conversation.

"I think this is a powerful play and very timely," Edgerton said. "I think there is a lot of realism in it."

Having watched some of the rehearsals, Edgerton said the cast members "are perfect in their roles," and immediately pulled her into the story as if she knew the people.

"I hope people attend in droves," she said. "It can only be a positive for the community."

City schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless, who has read the play and will participate in the symposium, said that, although it will be staged during the summer, school officials and others wanted to find ways to involve both students and faculty. That effort includes a number of tickets to the play donated for area youth and a special performance that students and teachers will attend together.

McCandless credited Edgerton with helping to prepare a strong faculty professional development segment related to the play.

"This also struck me as just something that is typical of Barrington Stage Company," he said. "It is to her [Boyd's] credit, and the theater company's credit, that they really made community involvement and discussion of issues [a priority]."

"American Son" will premiere on the BSC mainstage in Pittsfield on Wednesday and run through July 9. Preview performances began on Friday evening.

Boyd and Managing Director Tristan Wilson announced in January that the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation has selected "American Son" as one of two recipients of the of the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award. BSC will receive $50,000 toward the production expenses of the premiere work, with Demos-Brown receiving $25,000.

"American Son" also will help launch the theater company's 2016 season on its mainstage. It will star Tamara Tunie ("Law & Order: SVU"), Michael Hayden, Luke Smith and Andre Ware.

Demos-Brown's credits include "Fear Up Harsh," which, among others, received a Steinberg Award Citation from the American Theatre Critics Association. His other credits include "Captiva, Our Lady of Allapattah," and "When The Sun Shone Brighter," which received the 2011 Carbonell Award for Best New Work and the 2010 Silver Palm Award for Outstanding New Work.

Boyd said Roz Stuzin knew Demos-Brown, of Miami, and arranged a meeting with the playwright. He was known for dealing with social issues, Boyd said, and after a discussion of works he was considering, it was decided to commission a new play.

For information on BSC, visit http://barringtonstageco.org/

If you go ...

What: Symposium "Race, Bias and Culture in Present-Day America," sponsored in part by The Berkshire Eagle Newspapers in Education and Mass Humanities.

When: July 2-3

Where: Barrington Stage Company's mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield

Tickets: The event is free, but reservations are suggested by calling the Barrington Stage Box Office, 413-236-8888

PANEL DISCUSSIONS

Saturday, July 2

1-2:30 p.m.: "The Struggle of Growing Up Biracial — Caught In the Middle"

Keynote Speaker: Dr. Ferentz Lafargue, director, The Davis Center at Williams College

Moderated by: Pittsfield Police Chief Michael J. Wynn

Panelists:

Dr. Barbara Baker, Director of Project Link at BCC

Byonte Jones, ninth-grade student, BART Charter Public School

Eddie Taylor, executive director, S.E.E.D. Network Inc.

3 to 4:30 p.m.: "Driving While Black (DWB)"

Keynote Speaker: Pittsfield Police Chief Michael J. Wynn

Moderated by: Dennis Powell, president, NAACP, Berkshire County chapter

Panelists:

Jerome Edgerton, musical director, Youth Alive and motivational speaker for young men, Pittsfield

Jermaine Sistrunk, assistant basketball coach and youth counselor, Taconic High School

Sunday, July 3

2 to 3:30 p.m.: "Institutional Racism: Academic, Political & Legal"

Keynote speaker: Andrea Hairston, professor of theater and Africana Studies, Smith College

Moderated by: Jason McCandless, superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools

Panelists:

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, 3rd Berkshire District

Shirley Edgerton, cultural proficiency adviser, Pittsfield Public Schools


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