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Gilman explores the Johnstown Flood through the lives of a traveling theatre troupe. “Bohemians were thought of as scum,” she says.
In the spring of 2000, the playwright Rebecca Gilman was about to step onto the national stage for the first time. Her drama Spinning into Butter, about a liberal arts college dean confronting her own racism, was set to open that summer at Lincoln Center in New York City. Both the primo venue and the play’s patrician setting were a far cry from the trailer courts and prison cells of Gilman’s outstanding breakout play a few years earlier, The Glory of Living, a shocker about serial killers staged modestly at Forest Park’s tiny Circle Theatre.
By the time it opened in New York, Spinning into Butter had that most elusive and invaluable asset going for it: legitimate controversial buzz. The source of the controversy was a speech in the second act, a 20-minute harangue in which the main character confesses to her pasty academic peers that riding the CTA systematically made her a racist. That lightning rod of a monologue shocked plenty in the upper-middle-class white audiences that had long patronized the Goodman, where the play was first produced. Yet to others it seemed a suspicious red herring. Some detractors thought the play took the easy way out by pretending to raise the issue of institutional racism while implicitly letting its audience off the hook (as if to say, “See? Not to worry. You’re not the only white person who secretly feels this way”). Others found the drama itself half-baked, a thin construction propped up by the gimmickry of a single speech.
But naysayers did not hold back the play’s success. Positioned perfectly on the dividing line between Clinton-era rigid political correctness and Bush-era rationalization of social prejudices, Spinning into Butter somehow managed to criticize and indulge in both at once. Gilman’s formula struck a chord with the entire American theatre scene; within a few years, the play was produced in almost every region of the country, and Gilman was a brand-name playwright.
A decade later, after several more plays that examined society’s ills through Gucci lenses (Boy Gets Girl, Dollhouse, The Crowd You’re in With, all Goodman Theatre premieres depicting white upper classes and their problems), Gilman is returning to a world she once inhabited herself: that of impoverished bohemia. This month the Goodman opens Gilman’s latest, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, a historical-fiction look at a rarely examined 19th-century disaster, the failure of a dam upriver from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which unleashed a torrent that killed more than 2,200 people.
This time around, though, instead of using members of the upper crust, Gilman filters the events through the lives of one of the lowliest castes historically in any society: a traveling theatre troupe.
“Bohemians were thought of as scum,” Gilman says of the era in which the play is set. Given that some Americans are now more likely to learn about Africa through the activities of Madonna and Brad Pitt than through hard-news journalism, it’s easy to forget that actors and entertainers were once regarded as little more than social parasites.
Gilman’s play was sparked by a David Brooks column in The New York Times, penned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, arguing that the social inequalities exposed by that disaster—and the popular anger they unleashed—bore similarities to the aftermath of the Johnstown disaster. Though the play is far from pure allegory, Gilman admits that for some time she had been looking for a way to return to narratives about the less privileged, and she saw a window of opportunity with Johnstown.
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Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp