April 8, 2008

‘Cruising the divide’ A new play examines Derby cruising

Cruising the Divide: Actors gathered at the Braden Center last week for a community reading of “Cruising the Divide,” a play about Derby cruising that will run this May at Actors Theatre.With the Kentucky Derby forthcoming, we in the local media are obligated to cover with dull regularity the customary sideshows leading up to the most exciting two minutes in sports. Until the equines gallop, Louisville is a hackneyed buffet of mini-marathons, chic bonnets, celebrity sightings, balloon races and fireworks. Surely cruising on West Broadway is among them.Framed between thoughtless car aficionados and unimaginative policymakers, this year we’ll have a novel hiccup when the Apprentice Company at Actors Theatre of Louisville presents a community-based play entitled “Cruising the Divide: From West Broadway to Churchill Downs.” Based on interviews conducted with over 60 residents from across the city, the script was written by Apprentice Company director Will MacAdams, who has been with Actors Theatre for the past two years. Free to the public, “Cruising the Divide” will be the final project of the 2007-2008 season for the Apprentice Company, and can be seen at Bingham Theatre at 8 p.m. on May 15 and 17. Last week, MacAdams invited members of the community to a public reading of the script’s first draft at the Braden Center on West Broadway. While listening to feedback and fielding questions, MacAdams acknowledged the toxic whirlpool associated with the debate over cruising on Broadway.“Our goal is to ask questions, not provide answers,” he told the crowd of more than 50 who attended the reading. MacAdams said it is important to him that the script is representative of various viewpoints. Although theater shouldn’t shy away from thorny topics, he told LEO, it is not his intention to take a particular side in the debate, which reached a fever pitch last year, when some West Louisville business owners sued the city after it closed Broadway over Derby weekend to try and halt the cruising tradition. That case was later dismissed. “This whole process is very unique,” said Yuko Takeda, one of the 22 artists in Apprentice Company, who besides taking acting classes together have also performed backstage tasks such as setting up stages and scurrying wardrobe changes. She told LEO that although it is unconventional to base a play on real-life interviews, she is excited about how the material will be received. “With so many perspectives in one script, it is a very thought-provoking performance,” she said. “The characters are based on real people we interviewed and that some of us know.” For Takeda, that means the apprentices must balance MacAdams’ complexity without betraying the initial statements of interviewees.“What is the Derby for you?” asks a character in the play. Geography is vital in shaping our views of legitimate public expression, and “Cruising the Divide” puts those boundaries at the forefront. For the past several years that cruising has been in the city’s vocabulary, it has produced an exhaustive debate between supporters and critics that have rarely appreciated how our geographic divisions shape our definitions of Derby. “For African-Americans in stigmatized neighborhoods, parades and street festivals are a way of asserting themselves in a municipality that otherwise ignores them,” said Benjamin Branford, a University of Kentucky doctoral student studying geography whose dissertation is entitled, “From Celebration to Confrontation to Condemnation: The short life of ‘Derby cruising’.” Branford told LEO in a phone interview that the rights to and use of public space is a continual debate.However, two years ago, Mayor Jerry Abramson ended much of that debate when he announced that “we must — and we will — end Derby weekend cruising.” “For a number of years people pointed out it had grown into a life of its own and became a safety issue,” Chad Carlton, a spokesperson for the mayor, said. Carlton pointed out that West Louisville residents were the ones fed up with the annual gridlock of their neighborhoods, with many complaining to police about the bumper-to-bumper traffic that kept them and their guests trapped in their neighborhoods on Derby weekend. The mayor’s policy successfully plucked from West Broadway the spruced-up automobiles that blanketed it with an impractical, hazardous standstill. Yet it has also emptied one of Louisville’s main thoroughfares of pedestrians, family-friendly vendors and customer traffic for surrounding businesses in its predominately African-American neighborhoods during a weeklong festival specifically designed to crowd the city with people and flood it with revenue. “Certainly some folks weren’t happy,” said Carlton. Still, he told LEO that the feedback has been mostly positive. “People feel safer and better about it, even those that didn’t want to see cruising go.” Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com