Public school pioneer Horace Mann, a former Massachusetts congressman, famously called education “the great equalizer,” but the question of who gains access to quality educational opportunities has continued to bedevil the American school system nearly two centuries later. Kirsten Greenidge’s new play “Greater Good,” whose story unfolds inside a progressive independent school in Boston, explores questions of access, equality, and agency in education.
“In Greater Boston, we have a lot of fantastic private schools, but they are largely inaccessible to huge swaths of the population,” says Ilana M. Brownstein, the play’s dramaturg, who’s been collaborating with Greenidge for several years to develop “Greater Good.” “Even in Massachusetts, despite some of our very highly rated public schools, we still have deep inequities within those public school systems.”
The play receives its world premiere, July 17 through Aug. 17, at the Commonwealth School in the Back Bay, presented by Company One Theatre in conjunction with the American Repertory Theater. In this immersive, site-specific work, audiences will tour the fictional Gleason Street school, guided through various classrooms in small groups as they watch various scenes unfurl — from rambling, at times contentious parent council meetings to private conversations between teachers in the faculty-room kitchen to clandestine encounters between the head of school and a member of the council. The story hurtles backward in time, to a fateful parent council meeting the previous spring, perhaps a turning point for the school, as various secrets are revealed. As the audience moves through the space, the play’s middle scenes unfold in a different order depending on the audience grouping.
Gleason Street, Greenidge says, is a school that was once on the cutting edge of progressive educational innovations, but is now something of a fading institution. “[It’s] now struggling to find people to support it, to nurture it, to help it survive, and it needs to figure out a way to help more people gain access to it,” Greenidge says over the phone. “I think it’s also run by people who are struggling with the mission of the school. Are they living up to the ideals that they think that they are?”
“The play is really a microcosm of how oftentimes those of us in the progressive corner of the world may think we’re always doing the right thing,” Greenidge says, “but we tend to live our lives without a lot of deep introspection about how we can make choices geared towards the greater good of those around us.”
Issues of race, class, and gender play out in sometimes surprising ways in the play. “The people who have money and influence and power are perhaps not the people you expect,” Greenidge says.
“I think oftentimes we try and separate out race, gender, and class experiences, but the fact of the matter is that those things influence each other in all kinds of ways,” Brownstein says. “They change how we respond to issues of the day — like what school is our kid going to go to, or who are we going to support in our town meeting elections?”
An Obie Award-winning author of such plays as “Splendor,” “The Luck of the Irish,” and “Milk Like Sugar,” Greenidge says education and “how people are taught is talked about a lot in our family.” She attended a variety of schools growing up in Arlington and Cambridge, from progressive independent schools to large public schools; her mother is an educator, and she once wanted to become a schoolteacher herself.
Her new play was also inspired by her extensive research for “Common Ground,” her still-gestating stage adaptation of J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 landmark tome about the busing crisis and desegregation in the Boston public school system in the 1970s. She’s collaborating on that project with director Melia Bensussen and the Huntington Theatre Company. “There’s a lot that I want to talk about in terms of education and the role of education in our society that I might not be able to explore in ‘Common Ground,’ ” she says.
While “Greater Good” centers on questions of access and equity in education, Greenidge’s larger subject is governance and the intersection of “democracy and public space and how that affects our private lives and our calls to action,” she says.
“She’s looking at how people engage with their responsibilities as citizens of a community,” Brownstein says. “And that becomes a microcosm for this larger question in America right now about how we advocate for the society that we want, and what are our personal responsibilities towards that?”
“As citizens, we often have an idealized notion of how we think governance should work,” she says. “But the other side of the coin is that these folks we elect are humans.”
While a school parent council may seem like a relatively low-stakes form of governance, “the impact on the day-to-day lives of the families in this play is quite deep,” Brownstein says. “The scales are different in PTAs, or town or city councils, or state government, but the issues are really the same in terms of how people operate in these situations.”
As for the unique formal structure of “Greater Good,” Greenidge and Brownstein say that Maria Irene Fornes’s signature feminist masterwork “Fefu and Her Friends” became “a touchpoint.” “Fefu” takes place in multiple rooms in a house, with the audience broken up into different factions, so the scenes unfold in a different order depending on your group. “Fornes is so experimental, but I think Kirsten’s work is akin to hers in the uniqueness of her voice and the way she thinks about big ideas,” Brownstein says. “So that play was formative for us in investigating how Kirsten might make a play like this.”
‘[We] are working to make sure the words actually lift off the page and into the space, so that it doesn’t feel like we’re just in a schoolroom.’
It also prompted such questions as, “What is the role of an audience if they become a character in the event?” Brownstein says.
Indeed, the audience is a reminder that in “Greater Good,” the wider world looms large. “One character talks about ‘living in this particular moment.’ Another mentions that we’re living in a world of pollution and war and waste, so how do we move forward? The language they’re using obviously pertains to their current situation with the school. But [director Steven Bogart] and Ilana and I are working to make sure the words actually lift off the page and into the space, so that it doesn’t feel like we’re just in a schoolroom,” Greenidge says.
“We want it to actually feel like we’re speaking to 2019 in a palpable way.”
Presented by Company One Theatre in collaboration with American Repertory Theater. At Commonwealth School, 151 Commonwealth Ave., July 17-Aug. 17. Tickets $25-$45. 617-547-8300. americanrepertorytheater.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.