An original play by Hartford's Hartbeat Ensemble explores the ramifications of the drug economy
April 13, 2011
For nearly four years, Hartbeat Ensemble has been working on their show Flipside. But they haven't spent that time rehearsing or working on the set design, they've spent it researching their subject; Hartford's underground drug economy.
Flipside's creators applied a journalist's eye to Hartford's illegal drug industry, and developed a show that follows the story of a fictional local drug dealer and narcotics officer. Through interviews with dozens of law enforcement organizations, and dealers themselves, the show's fictional elements are interwoven with fact, and delivered in the form of live action, music and spoken word poetry. The Hartford-centric process is typical of Hartbeat Ensemble, which has offered drama workshops and locally focused performances since its founding in 2001.
Julia Rosenblatt, a Hartbeat co-founder, was the primary researcher and writer in what the group describes as a decentralized, collaborative effort. Rosenblatt says one of the most important things she learned during her research is that the drug economy isn't confined to the Hartford city limits.
“Eighty-three percent of overdose deaths in Connecticut happen in the suburbs and the small towns, and yet we always hear about this being an urban problem … this is not an urban problem, this is a universal problem,” Rosenblatt says.
In the play, Rosenblatt says, the main “connect” or wholesale dealer lives in Litchfield, a fact that comes from her research. Rosenblatt describes Connecticut's drug industry as an exchange between cities and the surrounding towns. Some dealers may be buying wholesale in Hartford for sale elsewhere, but Hartford dealers are also leaving the city to purchase their goods, and retailing in the cities, Rosenblatt says.
Jack Cole, a former police officer form New Jersey, is the loose model for the character Nick, a narcotics officer in Hartford. Cole left law enforcement and now campaigns against what he characterizes as a failed drug war, and Rosenblatt expanded on his experiences through interviews with law enforcement officials throughout the state. Rosenblatt emphasizes that Nick is a fictional character, “I took a lot of liberties” she says, but Cole's insight was invaluable to understanding how the two sides of the drug economy interact.
The show's dealer, Beau, is based on an anonymous 18-year-old Hartford heroin and marijuana seller. Rosenblatt met the young man through a youth education program she was involved in, and got to know him over the course of several months before learning about his history. He agreed to talk about his experiences on the condition that his identity be concealed. The young man is currently facing criminal charges.
Greg Tate, one of the founding members of Hartbeat Ensemble, describes Hartbeat's process as one of constant revision. He says one of the first segments the group worked on for Flipside was a discussion of the drug war in the 1970s, part of an attempt to provide historical perspective. On the same day he spoke to a reporter, Tate says the whole scene was cut, and hours of research and rehearsal were scrapped as the show took a different direction.
Explaining this, Tate and the other ensemble members devolve into nervous laughter, perhaps at the lost work or the uncertain process of creating a collaborative show that spans many genres. When Tate regains composure, he explains that to produce a show worth watching, you need to be open to where the narrative is trying to go.
“You have to be able to look at your work objectively, and just not fall in love with anything,” Tate says. “That [scene] didn't feel right anymore,” he says, so they had to be prepared to let it go.
Chinaza Uche, who plays the drug dealer, Beau, is a veteran of the Greater Hartford Academy for the Arts, where he was taught by Rosenblatt. After receiving his education at NYU, Uche became a professional actor, making a living with the projects available to him. He said being a working artist has taught him that not every project is equally rewarding, and he's grateful to work on Flipside, a piece he thinks has genuine relevance.
“You're not always doing projects you care about, or where you even understand the point … “[Flipside is] a real opportunity to do a piece with meaning, clear meaning,” says Uche.
Flipside — which opens on April 28 and runs through May 21(hartbeatensemble.org) — offers a critical view of the drug war and its consequences, but Rosenblatt says its purpose isn't to offer recommendations.
“We've been clear about the story we're telling,” Rosenblatt says. “We're not giving an answer to this problem with this play. That is not what we want to do. We want to tell a story.”