In 1986, after a decade of disruption, construction was completed on the North Freeway in North Omaha, Nebraska. Families that used to live around the corner from one another now found themselves divided by a noisy, bustling highway. Playwright Denise Chapman is a resident and activist in North Omaha today. “With the North Freeway, there was a physical separation. What happens when someone literally tears down your house and puts a freeway in the middle of a neighborhood and people who once had a physical connection no longer do? What does that do to the definition of community? It feels like it tears it apart,” she told Omaha’s The Reader in May 2018. “That’s what the play really explores.”
The play she refers to is More Than Neighbors, an Artistic Innovations project presented by the Metropolitan Community College Foundation’s Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, May 2018. Supported by the grant, The Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC) commissioned More Than Neighbors as a new play specifically created by community dialogue. More Than Neighbors began as Neighborhood Tapestries at GPTC 2013, a catalyst for the process of telling stories. The Artistic Innovations grant allowed GPTC to retain Chapman to grow the process further, building on the community stories and providing an opportunity to heal together.
With Chapman’s close community contact and GPTC’s outreach efforts with the affected neighborhood as well as fellow nonprofits and churches, the audience numbers for More Than Neighbors exceeded expectations. GPTC had to open up the dress rehearsal as a public performance, and the next night’s premiere played to a standing-room-only crowd. Amy Recker, assistant director of the Metropolitan Community College Foundation, describes the project’s talkback outreach activity: “After the performance, a talkback was held for the playwright and director to discuss creating the piece and for the audience to ask questions of them. The conversation quickly developed into a safe space for audience members to tell their own stories of how they were affected by the redlining. Their presence for this play gave them a voice, and a caring, attentive audience to speak to. It was an opportunity for audience to connect their lives together and to share their story.”
Surveys were distributed to all audience members asking them to document memorable moments from the show and to indicate if the experience inspired them to attend theatre in the future. Of the surveys collected, nearly 60% of people stated that they only rarely attend theatre, and nearly all of them indicated that this experience inspired them to seek out more theatre arts performances in Omaha.