The University of Maryland, College Park is staging a play that explores racial tensions on a college campus that was loosely inspired by a poem written during the Harlem Renaissance by the African-American trailblazer Countee Cullen.
So struck was playwright Kirsten Greenidge by a poem called "The Incident" that she titled her play, "Baltimore" -- though the drama in fact is set in New England. In both fictional works, "Baltimore" is used as a kind of shorthand reference for race-related disputes.
In Cullen's poem, an unnamed narrator recalls being wounded by an ethnic slur when he was a small child. The poem concludes:
"I saw the whole of Baltimore / From May until December; / Of all the things that happened there / That's all that I remember."
The play, which opens next weekend, is told through the point of view of Shelby, a 20-year-old African-American student at a small New England college. Her illusions that her generation is post-racial are shattered after a white student creates an offensive drawing on a black student's dorm room door.
"Baltimore" was written before the death of Freddie Gray last April 19. But Greenidge later inserted a brief reference to the 25-year-old man's arrest and injuries, and the subsequent uprising -- as well as to the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Sarah Snyder, communications manager for the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, wrote in an email that students involved in the production delved into background research, which included enrolling in a course about identity and interviewing campus and community groups about diversity and their experiences with racism.
Because Shelby, the main character in Greenidge's play, is a resident assistant working in the dorms, the school is offering free tickets to students who fill the same role on campus, "in the hopes that it will spark dialogue among their residents," Snyder wrote.
"Baltimore" is the second play to be mounted by the Big Ten Theatre Consortium's New Play Initiative, which commissions plays by leading American female playwrights that feature large casts and prominent roles for actresses. The play is performed on campus at the participating universities.
The show is being performed Feb. 26 through March 5 in the Kay Theatre on the University of Maryland campus near Stadium Drive and Route 193. Tickets cost $10 to $25. For tickets, call 301-405-2787 or go to theclarice.umd.edu.
The play is also currently being performed in Boston by the Boston Center for American Performance and New Repertory Theatre. The cast is mostly Boston University students.
Greenidge, who won an Obie (Off-Broadway award) for a previous work, may be a familiar name to Marylanders. She was one of the playwrights featured in "My America," Center Stage's 50th anniversary celebration of short plays.