The Trouble with Cobb County

By Pearce, Michele | American Theatre, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with Cobb County


Pearce, Michele, American Theatre


In Barbara Lebow's 'Stories, 'political adversaries share the stage

Cobb County is a study in multiple personality disorder," declares a character in Cobb County Stories, delivering a fitting metaphor for both the fractured and fractious Georgia county and Barbara Lebow's new community-based theatre piece. A suburb just north of Atlanta, Cobb County is perhaps best known for repeatedly electing Congressman Newt Gingrich and, in 1993, passing a controversial anti-gay resolution. Fallout from that resolution, which sparked nationwide media coverage, included the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games moving Olympic beach volleyball out of Cobb and making it one of the few counties in Georgia bypassed by the Olympic torch.

Marietta's Theatre in the Square has been at the center of this maelstrom since a production of Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart (in which two married couples spend the weekend at the Fire Island house of a gay man who has died of AIDS) sparked a vote in August 1993 by the Cobb County Commission to eliminate all county arts funding. At the same time, the Commission approved a resolution that "lifestyles advocated by the gay community are not in fact family units [sic], and these matters should not be endorsed by government policy makers, because they are incompatible with the standards to which this community subscribes."

During the height of the controversy, Theatre in the Square artistic director Michael Home and playwright Lebow won a grant for the Theatre Communications Group/Pew Charitable Trust artist-in-residence program. Lebow, a veteran of community-based outreach projects with the Academy Theatre and other groups, was determined to use the very medium which had sparked this controversy - theatre - to create understanding between the violently opposed groups on either side of the debate. "The objective very early for me was to see if this could be a starting point for open dialogue," Lebow remembers, "for encouraging people to look past the stereotypes and not to attack anybody for a change."

The result was Cobb County Stories, a mix of oral history, fantasy and music, which premiered in a workshop production under the direction of Frank Wittow at Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage in late May. The piece invites comparison with Colquitt, Ga.'s Swamp Gravy, which is also created and performed by members of the community and relies heavily on oral histories (see Nov. '95). Despite the obvious similarities, the two pieces are very different, reflecting structurally and narratively the two communities from which they have sprung. Colquitt is a small, rural south Georgia farming town with a strong sense of history and identity; Cobb County is a fast-growing suburban/urban area whose rural roots are quickly disappearing under freeways and shopping malls. Swamp Gravy is unified by common experience and belief; Cobb County Stories is fractured by fear and uncertainty.

Labels don't apply

Lebow began her process by meeting with interested groups of Cobb citizens of varying backgrounds, and using improvisation, writing exercises and group discussions about dreams and fears to explore the community's psyche. She later conducted one-on-one interviews with Cobb residents - ranging from gay activists to Commissioner Gordon Wysong, the author of the anti-gay resolution - and pulled together a group of non-professional actors (Lebow describes them as "open-minded, non-extreme people of diversified backgrounds") who would ultimately develop and perform the play. …

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