Pittsburgh on the Patapsco

December 06, 2007

On the surface, a show now playing at the Theatre Project on Preston Street ostensibly shows Baltimore as Baltimoreans see it, and describe it. But the surface is deceiving, because if this were actually a hometown look at the hometown, it would be jokey or earnest or a mixture of both, and it's not - quite. Baltimore: The Opera, which runs through this weekend, really offers a glimpse of Baltimore as outsiders see Baltimoreans seeing it.

It's a little bit of a revelation. A theater company called the Squonk Opera came here from Pittsburgh, as it has gone to other cities around the Northeast, and videotaped a few dozen interviews with a variety of people. Then the opera's creators used those interviews to form - what? the narration? the chorus? - of the show.

You hear and see Baltimoreans, not boasting or lamenting or poking fun, but explaining how it is, in two-minute segments. Theirs is a local perspective, but the important thing is that it's filtered through an outsider's sense of what's interesting and what's real.

Rain on the Fourth of July. Running out of gas in a strange neighborhood that becomes less strange. Arabbers. Kids who wonder why no one's listening. Going home the day the Colts decamped.

There's a Paul Bunyanesque tale of the man at Sparrows Point who couldn't take the harassment of one of his co-workers anymore and tried to drop him in a smelter; it's funny, though it's about race and prejudice.

And there's Ruby Glover, who died in October, reminiscing about jazz clubs on Pennsylvania Avenue and breaking into an a cappella song. A live accompaniment, by the musicians on stage, kicks in as if it were the most natural and magical thing in the world.

When you live in a place for a long time, you eventually put together a shorthand way of thinking about it. The ink may fade yet it becomes all but indelible over time. But someone from somewhere else isn't captive to that creased and folded scrap of paper. Show me Baltimore, this show says to the people who live here, and I'll show you what you're missing.

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