In order to help Anya, Andrew, and the rest of the Orphic team better understand the world of our new Agamemnon, I was given the task of researching the 1980s crack epidemic in Oakland, California. Anya’s play is completely immersed in this underworld of drug lords and addicts. I was excited to receive this research prompt: I’m from the Bay Area myself, and have family who saw and experienced this epidemic first hand.
However, whatever real-life connections I might have to this topic, they probably wouldn’t be relevant to Anya’s adaptation largely due to differing ethnicity. Anya’s Agamemnon follows an African American family divided by betrayal surrounding the drug trade. I knew I was likely not well informed about the struggles of black communities in Oakland, so I decided to begin my research with race.
I began with the U.S. Census. I was surprised to find that Oakland doesn’t quite qualify as a historically black community, which are cities with an African American demographic over fifty percent. I always pictured Oakland as primarily black, probably because of Oakland’s outspokenly proud cultural heritage. However, these surprising percentages were not due to the absence of black people, but the large diversity of other people of color. Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in the world, home to large Asian and Islander communities. Future casting directors of Anya’s play might take into account that one in twenty Oakland residents identify as mixed race.
I also began to wonder why Oakland itself was so particularly devastated by the epidemic. I looked into the other major cities affected, and discovered that Oakland doesn’t actually fit the usual description of an affected city. What set Oakland apart from many of the cities affected by the 80s crack epidemic was its size and proximity to another affected area, San Francisco. Crack was and continues to be a “big city drug,” mainly affecting the inner cities of the northeast United States and the west coast cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Oakland, while being a large city compared to others, is only a few minutes and a bridge away from San Francisco, a city twice its size and almost twice as rich. Being so close to another afflicted area, along with the institutionalized racism suffered by historically black communities, probably starved Oakland of rehabilitation efforts.
But what does this mean for Anya’s play? It adds another layer to her characters’ experiences; there’s a certain hopelessness that comes from growing up in areas suffering from institutionalized poverty and other socioeconomic barriers. Future directors and actors could pull from that when rehearsing for Anya’s Agamemnon.
That idea of environmental hopelessness pervaded my research from then on. The real tragedy of the 80s crack epidemic was not the number of lives lost due to overdose or drug related health issues, but those lost to the violence surrounding the drug industry. Police violence, violence between dealers, between addicts and the people exploiting them. The criminalization of addiction is just as bad a problem today: people with chemical dependencies, resulting chemical imbalances in the brain, were and are treated as thugs and felons instead of people with mental and physical illnesses. Audiences today won’t have to suspend their disbelief much to be affected by Anya’s play.
What I hope to research next for the Orphic team is the manifestation of that hopelessness. I hope to dive deeper into topics like the distrust of government, the stigma around the healthcare system, even the cognitive effects of addictive substances. A running theme in this adaptation of Agamemnon, and the original, is conspiracy and skepticism of authority. I wonder how this new setting adds to that narrative. Between this research and conversations with the other interns and Anya, I’m looking forward to the months ahead!