On a recent Saturday groups of residents volunteered to clean scattered areas around the city. These annual (or semi-annual in some spots) events, besides achieving what they are supposed to, provide an interesting anthropology exercise. In the area near between Flatbush Avenue and Brookfield Street, the most prevalent types of trash were fast food and snack wrappers/utensils, tires, various other car parts, and alcohol bottles. For this most recent clean up, the streets, park, and school lawns that the group I joined up with scoured showed a disturbing trend. Besides the standard fastfood and snack debris, we also dealt with an inordinate amount of broken glass, cigarette butts, cigar wrap wrappers (particularly vanilla), and literally hundreds of (mostly) used glassine bags. One person found a baggie that was actually still filled with heroin. There was one syringe found in the area of a park and an elementary school; another capped syringe was found near the fence bordering a different elementary school, where a vial was discovered as well. None of these finds — except for the one bag that still contained heroin — were particularly surprising, but when hours are spent picking up one baggie after another, the enormity of the drug problem becomes clear.
A few weekends ago, I helped with a different clean up in my neighborhood. During this one, we found a pile of unused glassine bags in front of one house. Given the activity on the street, we all reached the same conclusion: drug factory. It’s better than it used to be, I hear. People are not buying and then shooting up in their cars before leaving Hartford. The vigilance of neighborhood residents drove that behavior either inside or off the beaten path. But the trade is still visible. When making the environment feel inhospitable does not do the trick, residents report suspicious activity to the police. Make, model, and license plate are reported, sometimes with photos taken of those buying. It’s said that there is a “no snitching” mentality here, but that’s not the case at all. Not here, anyway. Not everyone has been so demoralized that they accept a dirty and dangerous environment for themselves or their families.
Long-time readers of this blog know that I have this knack for running across syringes. I don’t write about each one I find though. What would I say? For awhile I was mapping their locations, but what I learned most from that was how upset some people get from the truth being revealed. Now, I just ask how we could get a sharps container or two installed in key locations so that syringes might be safely disposed of. Hartford does have a syringe exchange program with sites on Park Street and Albany Avenue; I can only imagine how many more needles were discarded so thoughtlessly before this program was in place.
The lack of attention paid to how neighborhoods are affected by the street economy is one of my few gripes about Flipside, HartBeat Ensemble’s current production. The play mainly shows how dealers, users, and an undercover officer are affected by the drug trade. The audience sees a little of how those figures’ families and friends are affected. But there is no attention given to those who are merely trying to exercise their rights to live in an environment free of the violence, destruction, and filth that accompanies this particular aspect of the street economy.
On one level, there is no obligation that the theater company has to explore every perspective. At 90 minutes, the play is already at something like ninety times the attention span of most Americans today. On another level, it feels like parts of the story are not being told. The drug dealer in the play — Bo — is a character the audience can feel some sympathy toward. His parents both have debilitating health problems and he wants to make sure his younger sister has some kind of future. In reality, dealers are not always mixed up youth who claim to want to move into another line of work…eventually.
Likewise, in reality, not all suburban drug users are dizzy, spoiled youth who use drugs for partying. While the play’s portrayal of a suburban drug mule/junkie and another drug user served as comic relief, it seemed almost as if the reasons for why the elderly drug user developed her habit were minimized; at the same time, the dealer’s hardships were built up. Entitled, naive brats might make up part of the picture of suburbanites who buy drugs, but it’s not the whole picture; many of them use drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication for mental illness. As the young, West Hartford character dubs heroin use-via-injection “ghetto,” reality is that suburban users also inject. A few years ago in Tolland — named 27th Best Small Town to Live in America — several syringes were found near an elementary school, middle school, and in a town park. So, while the comic relief of an airhead party girl was needed in the play, it’s hoped that this doesn’t detract from audience members understanding that in reality, there are serious drug problems in suburbia.
With that all said, I don’t know that Flipside attempts to define or categorize who buys, sells, and busts. It certainly does not preach any particular ideology, which is refreshing.
Though I was given the clear impression that I was supposed to walk away thinking about the “drug war,” that is not what I think is actually at the heart of this play. The drug abuse and alcoholism is only indicative of something larger: people who are unable or unwilling to see what other life options and problem-solving methods exist. This is where the action of the play most closely resembles reality. We all know people who create their own personal hells (many of whom have yet to realize it) because they do not understand what other choices they have in life. What typically comes with that is denial, and all the other responses that we see Bo, Nick, and other characters exhibit.
Brian Jennings plays a convincing Nick. Physically, he looks like someone who could seamlessly blend in the Asylum Hill neighborhood, where most of the action occurs. I see people walking around there all the time who could work as his stunt double, if need be. Nick shows a range of emotion– playing the obsessed workaholic, sympathetic friend, guilt-ridden father, and stunned undercover officer. Chinaza Uche’s character, Bo, is a believable teenager. Bo acts a lot bigger than we know he feels. Like Nick, Bo values his career over his personal relationships, even if both convince themselves that they are doing what they do to support others.
Flipside is being performed in the Hollander building. The space is still quite unfinished, which actually suits the set of this particular production. The set is sparse: two doors and a window. It looks shabby, as does the actual area where most of the scenes occur. Another too real element was the police lights. This play comes with a warning about strobe lights and language. I would also add to that a warning about unclear time shifts, particularly in the beginning of the play.
Flipside will be playing on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings through May 21st. Tickets are $15/20 a pop and do not appear to be sliding scale like past performances.
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.