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Friday, June 19, 2015

Earning their Stripes

A reminder from the Greensboro Coliseum that college
basketball is a religion.
The content here has always been simultaneously expansive and restrictive. The areas I cover, sports and marching/athletic music, provide a broad palette to discuss, and yet I have always intentionally restricted the topics here to those and directly related areas. It is for that reason that you've not heard me speak of Triad Stage, our local professional theater here in Greensboro, where my wife and I have been season pass holders for the better part of our decade here. Thankfully, through their current production of Common Enemy, I have occasion to speak on a place I love and an excellent performance that I recommend all within reach attend.

Written and directed by Triad Stage co-founder and artistic director Preston Lane, Common Enemy interprets Henrik Ibsen's Enemy of the People through the lens of North Carolina college basketball. The setting is the fictitious Zebulon College, a liberal arts institution in Hawboro, NC (NC is home to a Zebulon, a Haw River, and a host of 'boros); the time is the theater-nebulous "present day", though I suspect in the future that will need to be updated to the 2010s, a time where themes like Edward Snowden and college athletics are as polarizing as Duke-Carolina, liberal-conservative, and at Zebulon, home of the Zebras, black and white. Period pieces are often thought of as another period; it's odd to think that someday a dramaturg will be researching early 21st century North Carolina, but the setting is so masterfully played out that it has to be born of this soil.

The play follows the Zebulon Zebras as they compete in, and ultimately win, the Pioneer Conference tournament, sending them to the Big Dance for the first time in the institution's short stint in Division I. We meet their star player, athletic director, college president, and chair of the Board of Trustees, all gearing up for a journey with implications for more than just the athletic program. The added attention could differentiate Zebulon from other colleges of a similar profile in a time in higher education where the grab for scarce resources threatens institutions of various types. Many faculty are on board as well, but as some have seen first hand, there is often a tenuous relationship between college athletics and the institutions that support them. When a professor's research stands to derail everything, battle lines are drawn: Friend or foe, local or outsider, for us or again' us.

I work in higher education, and of course I follow sports, especially college sports, closely. I love college sports like I love scrapple - it's delicious, so long as I don't think too hard of what it's made of. Common Enemy addresses themes like payment of student athletes, students advancing academically on athletic prowess and little else, and systems that are in place to shield transgressions - minor and major alike - lest they threaten the almighty sport. Without the love - sometimes, even with it - it's hard not to make a case for shutting the whole thing down. Whether that's seen as rational or insane depends largely on the lens through which you view it.

The detail that ties this piece to the land is impeccable, but I wouldn't expect any less from North Carolina native Preston Lane, or from Triad Stage, a theater that among its core values lists "A Southern Voice." The description in the program places Hawboro precisely - along the Haw River on North Carolina's piedmont - and outlines what sort of BBQ (Lexington, if you're wondering) the joint in one of the scenes serves. Each character has his or her Duke-Carolina allegiance, and in one impassioned monologue, a native North Carolinian outlines the family ties and life experiences that make this more than just a game. The accents are distinct, and the relationships, born of convenience or of generations, are authentic. And while the themes are universal, perhaps my only criticism of this piece, should it go national - and I sincerely hope it does - is how it would play before audiences who, as one character is constantly reminded, "ain't from 'round here."

Common Enemy continues at Triad Stage through June 28. If this is at all within reach for you, treat yourself to an unforgettable night of live theater.
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