Stanford Theater: Race Relations 101 A Collaboration between the University and Troubled East Palo Alto Helps Bridge a Historic Town-Gown Divide

By Daniel Sneider, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 26, 1995 | Go to article overview

Stanford Theater: Race Relations 101 A Collaboration between the University and Troubled East Palo Alto Helps Bridge a Historic Town-Gown Divide


Daniel Sneider, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


FOR students at elite Stanford University in Palo Alto, the adjoining town of East Palo Alto has always been the other side of the tracks, or more literally, the other side of the freeway.

Until not so long ago, the largely African-American and Hispanic-populated town was known mostly for Whiskey Gulch, a stretch of liquor stores where students could evade strict anti-alcohol rules on campus. More recently, East Palo Alto was the site of shootouts between drug gangs that earned it, in 1992, the dubious distinction of having the nation's highest per capita murder rate.

But an unusual theater program is helping bridge the gap between town and gown. The project complements a larger transformation taking place in East Palo Alto in which economic development and community policing have turned around many of the city's maladies.

The collaboration between Stanford students and faculty and city leaders and residents has resulted in the production, last month, of two original one-act dramas portraying the history and life of East Palo Alto, along with a video documentary.

The two one-act plays - "Circle in the Dirt" and "Dancing on the Brink" - featured casts drawn from both the campus and the community. The documentary and the research to develop the productions, which played to packed houses in East Palo Alto and Stanford, will be used as educational tools.

"Nobody expected anyone to come," recalls Walter Matherly, a middle-aged East Palo Alto resident who both acted and served as community liaison for the project, "but on the first night the house was jammed. The East Palo Alto cast members, their brows were knit, as if to say, 'Now what are we going to do.' "

Joaquin Torres, a Stanford junior, joined the project as an actor, motivated in part by the desire to learn more about his neighbors. "The Stanford community is so white - East Palo Alto is a big shock," he says. By participating, he now sees the city differently from the way most Stanford students do. "I was surprised by the richness of history, the combination of race and culture," he says.

The project was the inspiration of Stanford drama professor Harry J. Elam Jr., who heads the university's Committee on Black Performing Arts. It is based on the "research to performance" method pioneered some 20 years ago at Brown University by two African-American studies professors, Rhett S. Jones and George Houston Bass, who studied a neighboring community in Providence, R.I., and then produced plays about it.

Professor Elam began by sending letters to all 5,000 households in East Palo Alto inviting them to a meeting in early 1993 to discuss the project. Only a handful showed up, so Elam shifted course and formed the East Palo Alto Project with community leaders, city council members, and local activists. They tried to make it as diverse as the community itself - a third black, a third Hispanic, with a large community of Pacific Islanders, as well as whites and others.

Because of the mix of the community, they decided to commission two playwrights, one black, one Latino, each of whom would write one-act plays. Charles "OyamO" Gordon, the author of "Dancing on the Brink," is a University of Michigan drama professor and acclaimed playwright.

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