Play Reading Book Club builds bridges among Boston’s segregated neighborhoods
For the past six seasons, ArtsEmerson has quietly and effectively been bringing theater and theater education into communities around Boston through its Play Reading Book Club program.
Created and produced by ArtsEmerson Associate Producer Akiba Abaka, the program hosts 30-person book clubs in libraries and community spaces in neighborhoods like Roxbury, Dorchester, Hyde Park and many others. Attendees read plays from the current ArtsEmerson season, see the shows live (for free) and sometimes even perform scenes from the plays themselves within their groups, all while discussing the content from their own cultural and personal perspectives. When attending the shows, book club members also attend a special reception and have a private Q&A with a creative member of the production.
“The Play Reading Book Club was designed in what I call small-batch community engagement,” says Abaka. “We wanted to create a vehicle that was going to invite people in, engage them deeply, and encourage frequency of going to the theater because people felt invited, they were in the know, they knew where to go and how to get there — and when they were there, they had a good time.”
These details are another crucial part of the program. Book club members are given information about how to book tickets, where to find parking in Boston’s busy theater district and what to expect when seeing a show. This makes the theater experience increasingly accessible for viewers who haven’t felt welcome or comfortable in those spaces before.
The program was born from a desire to bring more diverse audiences into the theater, particularly from black communities. And in that way, it has been very effective; Abaka says the numbers of viewers of color attending the theater have grown. But the Book Club has also become a space where people of all backgrounds can have constructive and in-depth conversations about their experiences. On a small but mighty scale, it’s breaking down the segregated nature of Boston’s neighborhoods.
Paula Elliot has been participating in the book clubs since their inception. Though she has been very involved in the art and music worlds, she didn’t have much experience with theater when she came on board. “I really had no exposure to theater for all practical purposes,” she says. “I never would’ve imagined that I would be this engaged for this long. I feel very strongly about this program.”
But Elliot didn’t just come for the entertainment. One of the first plays the group read was “The Trip to Bountiful,” a play traditionally done with a white cast that at ArtsEmerson was done with an all-black cast featuring Cicely Tyson and Vanessa Williams. She says, “It made connections to questions that I had not really articulated earlier in life.”
Akaba says these cultural crossovers and conversations have been an important outcome of the program. “What we found was that regardless of culture, socioeconomic background, regardless of the demographics of the participants, people came for the social connection and discussion, to hear the story, to see some semblance of their life reflected back to them.”
Registration is open now for book clubs discussing the upcoming shows “Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)” and “An Iliad,” to begin soon at locations in Roxbury, Downtown Boston and Allston. Registration for “Detroit Red” and “Metamorphosis” will be open in November.