When Monica Boone stepped up to direct a community theater production of “Our Town,” she shared her talents and helped spark meaningful connections in her neighborhood.
By Jennifer Proe
Monica Boone moved to Shaker Heights in 2003 to be near her parents, occupying the upper level of their duplex in the Moreland neighborhood. She never envisioned how that move would one day provide the catalyst for bringing her personal passion – theater – back into her life. Neither did she imagine how that passion would bring about transformative connections within her community.
Boone majored in theater at Kent State University, making her debut on stage at Karamu House in a performance of Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie.” Although she enjoyed performing, she eventually found herself working on the other side of the stage as the audience development director for The Cleveland Play House (when it was located at East 85th Street).
During her years with The Play House, Boone often found herself lingering in the theater after hours,
watching the directors at work with their casts, absorbing their methods and filing it away for future use. She also helped bring to the stage The Holiday Heart Project, which featured the play “Holiday Heart” by Cheryl West. This antidrug program was performed for more than 2,000 students of the Cleveland public schools. That was her first taste of how theater could be used to reach the community with an important message.
Eventually, Boone’s professional life drew her away from the theater. She now works as a regulatory affairs specialist at Invacare Corporation in Elyria, which she says, “is a perfect fit for me because I’m a neat freak and highly organized.” She also became a Moreland homeowner in 2013 when she bought the home next door to her parents, her ideal neighbors.
Not as ideal, however, was the three-hour daily commute, which left little time for anything outside of work. Over time, Boone found herself increasingly disconnected from her passion for the performing arts. There was another reason for the disconnect. In 2005, Boone’s family was devastated when her niece Danielle was murdered by her abusive boyfriend. Overnight, Boone’s life was turned upside down, leaving a hole that could not be filled.
“For quite a while, I became very withdrawn, almost reclusive, trying to process this grief,” says Boone.
Out of this grief came a play called “him,” written by Boone’s cousin, Robin Hawkins, which told the story of Danielle’s tragic death and helped to educate teens about domestic violence. Using Danielle’s story to help reach teens was important for Boone, but her grief continued to overwhelm her. “My parents could see I was becoming increasingly reclusive,” she says. “One night, they essentially tricked me into attending a community meeting called Neighbor Night,” she says.
The success of “Our Town” spurred several more community theater productions that have served to create important community conversations.
Her parents had heard about this new gathering for Moreland residents, and insisted that she come with them to see what it was all about. “At this meeting, Sonia Winlock stood up and pitched the idea of doing a play as a way to help build community. She had applied for a grant and was looking for help. I raised my hand, and the next thing I knew, I was the director,” says Boone.
The play was Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” which had two successful performances at Shaker Heights High School in 2016. The talented, multi-generational cast included newscaster Leon Bibb as the Narrator and several Shaker students, as well as members of the Moreland Community Players. For Boone, the success of this experience “was incredibly healing,” giving her the ability to enjoy a passion that had gone dormant. She rediscovered “that moment of working with someone who has dreamed of being on stage. It’s a leap of courage,” says Boone. “You have that moment in the sun where the spotlight shines on you. That’s what I love about community theater.”
Without question, the community has also benefited. The success of “Our Town” spurred on several more community theater productions with Boone at the helm, which have served to create a space for important community conversations.
One of those was “Hoodie: Between Black and White,” a multi-media presentation at the Shaker Main Library this past February. The piece was commissioned by the Library as part of the Library’s contribution to the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning’s NEA Big Read project… the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning’s NEA Big Read project. It was inspired by Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric. Says Boone, “Sometimes when people see a young person in a hoodie they think this is someone they need to fear or avoid, rather than seeing the person underneath.” The performance featured Shaker architect Robert Madison, Leon Bibb, community members, and students from Shaker Heights High School and MyCom, an organization that connects youth with employment opportunities.
During her years with The Play House, Boone often found herself lingering in the theater after hours, watching the directors at work with their casts.
An open and honest community discussion led by Sonia Winlock and Shaker Library’s community engagement librarian Gabriel Venditti, followed the performance. The discussion focused on how to avoid microaggressions – hostile or negative messages targeted toward members of a marginalized group. Boone also directed a theatrical performance of “The Meeting,” a fictional conversation between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., presented by the Shaker Arts Council. It starred Peter Lawson Jones as Malcolm X and Greg White as Martin Luther King, Jr., and was held at Heights Christian Church – a significant venue given that Dr. King spoke on the steps of the church when he visited Shaker Heights in 1965. She later helped to produce and direct “Conversations in Courage: The Visit,” a documentary film about his visit to Shaker.
“I first saw the play “The Meeting,” by Jeff Stetson, when I was 13, and it sparked something in me. I thought, ‘That’s what theater is? I’ve gotta do that!’” says Boone. These productions inspired Boone to continue connecting youth with the performing arts. In 2016, she again worked alongside Winlock, as well as Moreland residents MeShelle Barclay and Tammi Hayes, to launch a video contest for teens ages 14 to 18-years-old called “See Me I Matter.” Teens were invited to submit three-minute videos about how they want their community to see them. Cash prizes were awarded to the top winners.
Last year, Boone finally felt healthy enough to revisit the play about her niece’s death. Through her family’s nonprofit organization IMAGINE, she mounted a well-attended program at the Shaker Library about teen domestic violence, which included a dramatic reading of “him.” Boone brought in survivors of domestic violence to share their stories and presented a panel discussion with representatives from advocacy groups and the Shaker Heights Police Department.
Neighbor Night: From Digital to Analog
The connections that have formed as a result of this community theater renaissance are a testament to what can happen when a group of neighbors makes a conscious effort to get to know one another. And none of it would have happened without Neighbor Night, which is unique to Moreland.
As Boone told the group at one of their meetings, “Before I came to this group, I didn’t know anyone.” Now, they’re intimately connected through Moreland’s Rising Phoenix Theater Group, and also just as neighbors who can wave to one another.
On the last Tuesday of every month, Moreland residents gather at the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Community building to share what’s good in their lives, to ask for help on a project, to make social plans, or to float ambitious new ideas – like putting on a community play. There are no dues, no officers, no minutes. People come whenever they can, with a typical meeting drawing 20-30 neighbors.
“It’s such fertile ground for social networking and support,” says Colin Compton, neighborhood and housing specialist with the City of Shaker Heights. Compton enjoys attending the meetings, but not in an official capacity – just as an interested partner in this social network, who can lend some support when requested.
“The residents of Moreland are the most knowledgeable about their own neighborhood. This group came together as a way to identify the challenges and the assets they see in Moreland.”
One of the challenges residents identified was that many of them did not know their neighbors. They were seeking more ways to connect face to face, “going back from digital to analog,” says Compton.
But just as important, says Compton, is what he calls the “small magic” that happens, not just at these monthly meetings, but between them. “There are a million every day wows,” says Compton – the game nights, the book clubs, the meet and greets. One resident organized a community-wide spring cleanup of the neighborhood. Another has helped start an outdoor Tai Chi exercise class. Neighbors might decide to go see a movie together or try out a new restaurant.
Says Compton, “The events are exciting and fun, but the relationships are what create an enduring
attachment to this place.”
The connections that have come out of the community theater productions are a testament to how this can occur. “Monica has been very successful in coming up with programs that are of value to residents of every age, from high school students to community elders who have lived here for more than 50 years,” says Compton. “The arts are clearly a very powerful platform for community engagement.”
To inquire about having IMAGINE present programming on teen domestic violence for a school
or group, contact the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org or 440-644-0168.