What have we learned?
House/Divided examines the parallels between the housing crisis and the Great Depression
Directed by Marianne Weems
Performed by The Builders Association, NYC
Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre
Jan. 30–Feb. 2
Is the modern housing crisis like the Great Depression? In House/Divided, The Builders Association attempts to understand the parallels between the financial panic of the late 2000s and the 1930s, with a fascinating script that draws inspiration from The Grapes of Wrath and innovative incorporation of media.
The play is depicted as a series of vignettes from modern day — an earnings report from the bombastic hubris of the CEO of Lehman Brothers, a tense conversation between an entry-level employee and her supervisor about her misgivings of the predatory loan programs, to a man who is being forcibly removed from his house for missing just a single payment.
Interspersed with these vignettes are reenactments of passages from The Grapes of Wrath that parallel the plight of modern day. An unseen narrator reads heartbreaking passages of the Joad family’s suffering as they lose their home to an unsubstantial company and are forced to become migrant farm workers in California during the Great Depression. These scenes sometimes divided the stage, as the Joad family is forced to pack their car on one half of the stage while a man’s house was ransacked by cleaners after a modern-day foreclosure on the other half of the stage.
And the media incorporated into the play is absolutely fantastic. Instead of relying on bulky, unconvincing scenery, backgrounds are projected onto a screen shaped like a house. The play includes interviews from people affected by the loan crisis — a woman evicted from her house and a man on a post-eviction cleanup crew — that are projected onto another screen in the background. During the final act, cameras are used to display a closeup of Alan Greenspan onto the background screen while his face is covered by streams of changing numbers emulating data. The sensory overload at times seems to subtly critic the modern information overload as well as the follies of the market.
The most horrifying scene is the last, in which Alan Greenspan is interviewed for his role in the housing crisis. As the Committee castigates Greenspan for letting thousands of people go “underwater” into debt for houses they could not afford, images of a rushing river play across the screen. This segment transitioned into the last scene of The Grapes of Wrath. An enormous rain storm threatened to drown the Joad family after the severe drought, seeming to proclaim that we have learned nothing since the Great Depression.
However, the play relied on style rather than substance. While several actors embodied their roles with anguish, wickedness, and tenderness, others seemed to be coasting without truly giving an emotional performance. As a result, it was difficult to feel anything.
Furthermore, by using only excerpts of The Grapes of Wrath, these sections were not emotionally resonant. For example, Granma’s death in The Grapes of Wrath was a harrowing passage that I still remember years after I read the books. Ma Joad slept with Granma’s dead body in the back of a van for several hours without saying a word because the Joad family so desperately needed to get to California. Yet in the play, this terror was depicted lackadaisically, rendering the scene pointless.
The interviews don’t tell us very much about the real people affected by the housing crisis either. This problem seemed symptomatic of the whole play, which had a curious feeling of detachment about it, and it wasn’t overcome by the frenetic use of media. At the end of the day, the play still relied on the actors to tell the story, but it failed to develop the characters.