The most honest play about Buffalo in years won’t be appearing on any of the city’s major stages. At least not yet.
Nor are many likely to recognize the authors of the play, a probing and sensitive critique of the city’s simplistic “resurgence” narrative based on four months of interviews with activists, political leaders and East Side residents.
Those authors are juniors and seniors at Nichols School, a selective private school long seen as a bastion of wealth and privilege. And the play is “Buffalo Myth: Our Stories, Our Home,” based on a concept created by 2008 Nichols graduate Elisa Peebles and directed by veteran Buffalo actor and Nichols theater teacher Kristen Tripp Kelley. The show runs 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday night in the Nichols School auditorium.
For most, the phrase “high school theater” conjures images of rickety productions of “Phantom of the Opera” or “Guys and Dolls” – the sort of fun, low-stakes fare designed to be achievable on the short time lines and limited budgets that are a reality of the school system today. But not at Nichols, a rare school that employs a full-time theater teacher and seems to view the arts as an integral educational tool rather than an expendable luxury.
The results of that commitment and the considered process of interviews, script rewrites and rehearsals that led up to it, are stunning. During a Thursday night dress rehearsal, it was clear that Nichols students, Peebles and Kelley have created a piece theater that measures up to its ambition. For high school students and professionals alike, this is a rarity.
It all started about two years ago during a casual conversation between Peebles and her aunt.
“I was visiting home one day, speaking with an aunt who lives in the Fruit Belt, and she started to tell me about weird little rumors of things changing,” Peebles, who lives in Brooklyn, said before Thursday’s rehearsal. “I realized that there’s this big push for change in the city and it made me really think about the stories of my family, who all live or lived on the East Side.”
Students interviewed members of Peebles’ family, along with a host of other community activists and characters. Among the interviewees were former Common Council presidents James Pitts and George K. Arthur, preservationist Tim Tielman, Hamlin Park Taxpayers Association President Stephanie Barber Geter, the owners of the High Street Deli and many residents of the rapidly changing Fruit Belt.
With the help of Peebles and Kelly, the students then knit those interviews into an interlocking series of short vignettes considering everything from the racist practice of redlining – refusing mortgage loans to people based on their race – and the construction of the Kensington Expressway to the effect of the emerging Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus on the historic neighborhood that surrounds it.
For Kelley, who spearheaded another oral history-based production about the experiences of local refugees in 2010, the play is about much more than teaching students technical theater skills.
“It’s beyond just performance for me,” Kelley said. “There’s so many things we can teach each other through theater. I work with high school students, so I’m really interested in the power to teach empathy through character. That’s what attracts me to a project like this. They can actually experience personal change, personal growth and discovery through a project like this that’s not going to end when the performance is over.”
Peebles, who plans to put the digital material collected for the production online and hopes to mount another production of the piece in the future, said the experience has been heartening from the start.
“They just really wowed me in their ability to connect to these people and their stories – people they’ve never met before, stories that are totally different from their own – and find the truth in them,” Peebles said.
A common theme among the students I spoke to was gratitude for the opportunity to get acquainted with a city they only thought they knew before they go off to college – an experience too few suburban high school students get to have.
“It’s been very humbling because you grow up here, and you hear the stories of Buffalo past, and you think you know everything,” said Nichols senior Elena Ciotta, who lives in Snyder. “Then you step into someone’s shoes and you’re actually saying the words that they said. You’re at least attempting to feel the feelings they felt. It’s shown me a completely different side of the city, and it’s shown me a completely different side of myself.”