The Remaking of Our House

The Builders Association outdid themselves at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, with their new theatrical play using multimedia. Recounting the history of the financial crisis of the housing bubble, “House/Divided,” directed by Marianne Weems, magnificently weaved together the past and present through intricate technology and a creative set. The play was inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and motivated by discussion of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder. The story was told through two intertwining perspectives: first, from families suffering environmental or financial difficulties that forced them to leave their homes, and two, from brokers and banks that were the forces that made the families leave.

Brooklyn Academy of Music – Harvey Theater. Photo credits to BAM.

Integrating technology and lighting masterfully, the play switched between the Dust Bowl (past) and the housing stock brokers (present). Although consecutively alternating the time frame did initially create confusion, it was not difficult to understand the effect of the technique. The scene of the Dust Bowl was projected onto a house-like platform in the center of stage while the stock brokers were on left stage. Using lights, our attention was focused onto the screening in which we learned how a man-made ecological disaster drove a family out of their homes. Such was juxtaposed with the banks and stock brokers who, in the same way as the Dust Bowl, forced a man to be evicted from his house. The bank was said to be “the monster[; it] has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die.”

A scene in House/Divided where effective image projection and acting on the left side combined to create this new form of multimedia theater. Photo credits to Jay LaPrete.

The most provoking aspect of this would be that Builders Association really emphasized the emotional pain the evicted tenants were when they were forced out of their homes–a place filled with history and memories–rather than provide extraordinary numbers to illustrate a point. The music contributed heavily to such effect, creating high tension with fast techno beats and sorrow with slow paced sounds. We could only watch as workers “trash out” the man’s belongings in his former house. The old saw no future and could only hope that their children could create one.

The actors effectively brought out the complexity of the financial crisis and what led to the great economic downfall. In many parts of the play, there would be non-linear conversations. Multiple people would concurrently speak, making it very difficult to concentrate on their conversations. However, the audience could make out that the workers paid no attention to their superiors, like the stock brokers from Bear Stern ignoring their boss’s executive speech. The actors all spoke clearly and quickly, as if they were in sync with their role as businessmen. The use of overlapping conversations did not create incredible confusion; rather it was used to illustrate the chaos and ignorance that ultimately led to the stock market crash in 2008.

The set was especially impressive and efficient when combined with projection technology. With the help of projection technology, the sides and back stage was able to alternate through the different time periods with ease. At the heart of the stage and play sat a house-like structure. When appropriate images were projected onto it, it was initially used as a screen. Then when the families living in homes were introduced, it became a house. What was even more amazing was that inside the house were the musicians playing instruments. It was difficult to see through the screens that acted as the outer layer of the house but they were there, along with the casts outside, performing on stage. Toward the end, the crew took apart the house, which took very little time, brought out a podium and shown bright lights on its center. And so, the house transformed into an auction center. Once the auction platform had performed its role, it was quickly taken apart and removed from stage to make room for a table in which Alan Greenspan was questioned.

The main set seen in House/Divided. As shown, the house appearance is created by projecting an image onto the movable structure. Also, musicians are inside the home playing instruments for this theatrical piece. Photo credits to BAM.

Simplifying the complexity of the housing bubble was no easy task but Builders Association pulled it off marvelously. It was stunning that the first comment during the Talk Back session by an elderly woman was, “YOU BLEW IT!” She criticized the play had failed its purpose to engage the audience and leave them with feelings of anger or emotion. It was not wise for director Weems to shut her down and ignored her criticism. She could have responded in a friendly manner, even if it was to move on to the next questioner. That said, what the elderly woman said was not accurate. The play was provoking, but in a subtle manner. It left the audiences with a good grasp of our financial crisis and exhibited the emotional pain and sufferings the evicted tenants had to face. We might not leave wanting to eradicate banks all over the nation, but we should leave thinking how we would “[remake] a house that is undone physically and economically.”

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