Breaking Down Barriers--Theatre arts alum tackles issues of race and class in Iowa City

Alumni-run theater group focuses on community
Iowa City’s Working Group Theatre places a premium on local relevance: its production Odysseus, Iowa images Homer’s Odyssey set in Iowa; Was the Word is a monthly event that benefits local nonprofits; and the group’s newest production, Mayberry, explores issues of race and class in Iowa City.

Sean Lewis (M.F.A. ’07), the group’s artistic director, has a passion for community-based theater. He came to the University of Iowa from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to attend the Playwrights Workshop, which was “where all my favorite playwrights had gone.” It was there that he met his future wife, Jennifer Fawcett (M.F.A. ’08).

The couple left Iowa City briefly for a playwrights residency, but found themselves asking, “How do we actually get work as artists?” Enter Martin Andrews (M.F.A. ’09), who they met while at Iowa and who suggested, “If we’re going to get work, we have to do it ourselves.”

Now the trio leads a 10-member company that is attracting support from major national organizations such as the Kennedy Center, the Ford Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. But it is the local support that drives the group.

“This community has been insanely supportive,” Lewis says. “I do think that more so than anyplace else I’ve lived, we can create shows that are actually part of the daily discourse here. When you do work like that and people will come out and engage with you, it’s exciting.”

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I don’t know man…I ride the Coralville bus and, like, I’m not going to lie, but for the past year I saw lots of kids on the bus and in the mall acting badly. And 95 percent of them are African-American. I mean you know they act like that ’cause there’s never any parents around. Facts are facts.
— Sandra, a character in the play Mayberry

When stories about rowdy high school students causing problems at the downtown Iowa City bus stop hit the newspapers, UI theatre arts alum Sean Lewis wasn’t surprised. The issue was already addressed in his play Mayberry, which was performed April 26-29 to sold-out audiences at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City.

The play, commissioned by the University of Iowa’s Hancher, explores issues of race and class, says Lewis, playwright and artistic director of Working Group Theatre, an Iowa City organization devoted to community-based productions that deal with local political and social issues.

Though spoken by professional actors, the play’s words are verbatim comments, dramatizations, and imaginings from Lewis’ interviews with high school students, teachers, retirees, farmers, landlords, academics, and other Iowa City residents.

Look, between the black kids from Chicago and the crazy college kids running around, we all stay in our apartments a lot more. You see a bunch of girls from Northbrook use your town like it’s disposable...puking on the curb...What’s the point of going out into that?
Derek, a character in the play Mayberry

The idea for the play came to Lewis when he was working on a project in Tanzania. A Facebook friend urged him to look at the comment section following an Iowa City Press-Citizen story about troubles on the southeast side of Iowa City, which has a growing black population.

“I don’t really remember the article that well, but the comment section had exploded with tons of inflammatory speech,” Lewis recalls. “It was shocking to me. I had attended grad school in Iowa City and moved back to start a theater company, so I thought I knew the community. But this was so different from what I knew. I couldn’t help wondering, ‘Why is there so much anger?’”

Lewis was especially interested because he lives in the part of Iowa City under scrutiny. “We live in southeast Iowa City. Do we live in a bad neighborhood? It doesn’t feel that bad,” Lewis says.

To explore the answers to those questions, Lewis developed a proposal that he shared with Jacob Yarrow, Hancher’s programming director. Yarrow had seen Lewis’ solo show Killadelphia, based on work with inmates at a Philadelphia prison, when he performed it at Iowa City’s City High School for Children of Promise, a group for children who have a parent in the prison system.

Coincidentally, Yarrow was working with a leader of Children of Promise, so he found the Mayberry proposal especially intriguing.

“It was about themes like race, class, and changes in community, but it was also specifically about our community,” he explains. “I had seen Sean’s ability to work with those ideas and make a provocative performance from them. And I could tell that he was committed to continuing his engagement in the community and developing the deep understanding necessary to tell our stories.”

I moved, and I’m bored as hell. You know I’m in a routine. The busses suck. And there’s nothing really to do. I got a job. I don’t even buy anything. Nothing to buy here. I just put the money away. But you know what? I ain’t angry anymore.
— Kiesha, a character in the play Mayberry

Despite the charged nature of the issues, Lewis says he had no trouble getting people to talk with him.

“Immediately people said, ‘Oh, I’ve got an opinion on that!’ or ‘I’ve got a story for you!’ And when they realized that we weren’t trying to get them or force them to think in a particular way, they would say, ‘I’ll tell you what your play’s about’ and ‘You should talk to these other four people I know.’”

One of those discussions led to the play’s name. Lewis was talking to an African-American woman who had moved to Iowa City from Chicago. “She explained that her mother had made the same move previously,” Lewis says. “One day when the two were talking by telephone, the younger woman was complaining about something, and the mother said, ‘Why don’t you put all that stuff behind you and move to Iowa? It’s so nice, it’s just like Mayberry,’ the fictional southern town in the TV series that starred Andy Griffith. But the younger woman said, ‘But Mom, there’s no black people in Mayberry!’ As soon as she said that, I knew I had a title.”

I have seen plenty of loud, cursing, disrespectful white kids. They sit on their porch and drink beer at all hours, making it hard for their adult neighbors to enjoy summer with the windows open. The police may or may not come. But rarely with five squad cars. I think this blindness to rowdiness when the child is white is an example of the race bias…
The Sociologist, a character in the play Mayberry

It was also during those talks that Lewis continually heard complaints about black youth at the downtown Iowa City mall. So he talked with the students he was working with at Elizabeth Tate High School, and they explained that to get home, they first have to ride buses downtown and then wait for buses that go back to their homes on the southeast side of town.

Even though Mayberry delves deeply into the issues of race and class in Iowa City, Lewis aimed to beyond that by inviting members of the audience to stick around after the show to participate in a discussion of the issues, in what he dubbed “talk backs.”

“The talk backs are really part of the play. They’re Act Two,” he says. “I actually think most people are on the same side of these issues. They want the best community for themselves and their families. And most people are willing to have an open and honest conversation, but they are waiting for someone to give them permission to talk. The play will address things in a very blunt and open fashion, and I think it will help people say, ‘What he said is what I was worried about.’

“That’s when it becomes a different kind of theater,” Lewis says. “A community dialogue that people are impassioned about. Now that’s an amazing performance!”

For information about the Mayberry production, see

Steven Parrott
photo by Tom Jorgensen

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© The University of Iowa 2009