At the corner of North Avenue and Charles Street, on top of an abandoned bank building, there is a gray billboard with large black letters that read "Whoever Died From A Rough Ride." Below, in smaller letters: "the whole damn system…"
Despite spending a good deal of time in Station North and that particular intersection, I'd never managed to stop and read this sign, which has been there for at least a year, if not longer. Was I subconsciously avoiding it, not wanting to think about the practice Freddie Gray was possibly subjected to before he died in police custody?
I finally did notice it while sitting comfortably in a bus seat during Single Carrot Theatre's production of "Promenade: Baltimore," and while it wasn't part of the show, it was part of the point.
Unlike most plays, which take place in a theater, the scenes in this play occur at various locations throughout the city, with the audience observing actors from the windows of a moving bus, giving the scenes an almost cinematographic quality. The result is part ethnography of Baltimore neighborhoods, part "The Moth"-style radio show, with people from different neighborhoods recalling bar-worthy anecdotes.
Single Carrot Artistic Director Genevieve de Mahy met with church groups and community associations, interviewing close to 40 Baltimoreans about their neighborhoods and lives. Their stories are collected and abridged into an audio guide that plays through headphones during the trip.
"Promenade: Baltimore" is co-produced by the Hungarian theater company Stereo AKT. De Mahy was inspired to undertake the project when she saw the company's production, "Promenád," in Budapest back in 2015. In that show, a bus followed characters who were trying to escape Budapest, with a sole narrator guide. De Mahy was fascinated by the idea and knew immediately that she wanted to stage a show like it in Baltimore.
In a city as segregated as Baltimore, however, this exercise necessarily becomes a political gesture. Creating anything that claims to represent Baltimore can be fraught with complications, because there are so many different Baltimores. But "Promenade" not only addresses issues like segregation, representation, poverty, and gentrification—it makes these divisions its guiding focus.
The bus route starts in Remington (at Single Carrot) and weaves a path through West, Central, and North Baltimore that cuts across neighborhoods with sharp divisions. We drive northeast from the Upton/Marble Hill neighborhood as it rapidly becomes the much wealthier and whiter Bolton Hill, separated only by the grassy median of Eutaw Place and the internal compasses of people who live on either side of it.
The audio comes through headphones and makes the trip something of a personal experience. As the bus pulled up Calvert Street toward Charles Village, I thought about how some of my friends at Johns Hopkins thought of Baltimore as something either to be saved or consumed, but not lived in. For some who came from larger cities and even larger trust funds, Baltimore was external to Hopkins, either the source of the poverty statistics they read about in class or the narrowly concentrated string of bars and restaurants in Mount Vernon and Fells Point inside the "White L."
Thinking about the "White L" makes me uneasy because it reminds me how much I am bound by it: I went to school and currently live, work, and mostly hang out in it. "Promenade" highlights areas that are normally invisible, not only to tourists but many people who live in white Baltimore. The residents whose voices come the audio mince no words when discussing their neighborhoods or how they feel they are included (or not included) in the city. Somewhere in between the slapstick scenes becomes an opportunity for reflection on the city and its divisions, boundaries, and for someone like me, on my privileges.
Bus tours are usually grating in my experience: sitting in an overcrowded bus; AC either blasting or not working; a struggling actor trying way too hard to be peppy as they list random trivia over a hissing stereo system. In Single Carrot's capable hands, however, the ride becomes a meditation on the experience of being a tourist in one's own city. It calls to mind other tourism-as-art projects, like the NYC tour guide/poet/weirdo Timothy "Speed" Levitch, whose rambling, literary, free-associative speeches about Big Apple landmarks are catalogued in the 1998 documentary "The Cruise."
Sometimes attempts at capturing the quirky customs of Baltimore folklore feel forced and gimmicky. Honfest has always weirded me out, and in 2008 John Waters called it "used up" and "condescending." Baltimore's "quirk" is sometimes leveraged and abused by out of touch marketing types.
Single Carrot avoids that trap by allowing Baltimoreans to speak for themselves, and it presents the city and its diverse neighborhoods without glossing over its inequalities or fetishizing its tragedies.
In one scene, a black gardener teaches a dance move to the white man whose lavish Roland Park house he is landscaping. This could be staged in a cringe-y, clichéd way, but then they start slow dancing out of nowhere and suddenly—for a moment—everything is just weird and fun and not about power or stereotypes. The bus moves along and so do the actors, and the scene doesn't need to be about racial harmony in some heavy-handed way where we, the audience, reach some grand, restorative conclusion. It was just a moment that we got to witness and has now gone away.
While listening to people describe Baltimore as "patchwork quilt," or "melting pot" got repetitive after a while, the audio piece more often included nuanced, even poetic takes, like one Baltimorean who referred to where he lives as a "crushed velvet neighborhood." The soundtrack featured a diverse range of Baltimore artists, new and old, such as Beach House, TT the Artist, Future Islands, Lake Trout, and older, doo-wop and gospel groups like The Holy Lights of Baltimore and The Orioles.
But where "Promenade" comes up a little short as theater is precisely the drive-by approach it takes to telling the stories of Baltimore's residents. The short, quip-y anecdotes sometimes fall into a similar narrative trap as popular photography blogs like "Humans Of New York," where every person gets a Facebook-scroll's worth of time to tell "their story"—a form that can often reduce people to shareable sound bites and superficial accounts of their lives.
The best parts of the show are where the story takes a step back and lets us sit in one moment with one person. One satisfyingly overwhelming episode: The bus pulls into the Waverly parking lot that houses the Saturday farmer's market, and each of the actors (by now familiar to us having chased the bus across the city) appear in yellow vests and begin washing the windows, while in the soundtrack a woman talks about a man she knew who used to wash people's windows on the street for a living. Most people have experienced the awkwardness of this interaction, sitting in the car at a red light. In this case everything is scaled up: The whole company is washing the bus. We the bus passengers are reminded here of our position—inside the bus, we witness people hustling for a dollar.
"Promenade: Baltimore" continues through July 2 at Single Carrot Theatre.
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