The Great Debate Comes To Town

The candidates in place. Christopher Peak for the New Haven Independent. 

The candidates in place. Christopher Peak for the New Haven Independent. 

Is New Haven sprinting forward on fast and steady feet, or is it a town that has been wilting on the vine for four years, waiting for a visionary to save it?

That question was at the heart of When Marcus Met Toni: The Great Debate 2017, a one-night-only political opera held Tuesday at Booker T. Washington Academy on State Street. Around 200 New Haveners came out for the event, moderated by theatrical interpreters Paul Bass, Esteban Hernandez, Mercy Quaye, and Carlos Resto. 

Because the theater, which is also a charter school, is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), some attendees may have been unable to make it. 

A packed house for the show. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

A packed house for the show. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Part murder mystery, part Commedia dell'arte and part Greek drama, the work riled up a chorus of New Haveners supporting both political actors, with many standing, cheering, and jumping up and down long before an ovation was due.

An encore performance is expected for all day next Tuesday, during the city’s Sept. 12 Democratic primary. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.    

When Marcus Met Toni picks up where most gritty political dramas do: at the height of an election season, with two candidates knee-deep in their mayoral pitches. Playing the incumbent, Mayor Toni Harp stands on her experience: 20 years in the state senate (including a longtime stint as head of the Appropriations Committee) and four as mayor of New Haven, during which she has brought down violence, increased access to affordable housing, welcomed tech innovations, defended the city’s sanctuary policy, and worked to make the city into a place students and young people may want to stay. 

There have been challenges: new fire and police chiefs, and some drawn-out public controversies. She’s made mistakes that she’s willing to learn from, and she wants another mayoral term to show it. She’s seeking your vote because she likes facts — binders and binders of them — and it is a fact she cares about the city. Or so the pitch goes.

Harp: Just the facts, ma'am. Lucy Gellman Photo.

Harp: Just the facts, ma'am. Lucy Gellman Photo.

Opposite her, Marcus Paca is the new kid on the block. With few specifics behind his platform, he proclaims that he can be the visionary New Haven so desperately needs. He paints a city that has not improved in Harp’s four years, but can again grow strong in his hands. A one-term alder, he has a dedication to the people of New Haven that he wants to display once again. If only the people of New Haven will elect him. If elected, he’ll have cheese in the mayoral household at all times

But there’s a catch. The two have history: Paca is a former employee of Harp’s, who was fired in a terse, tension-charged meeting over a year before this opera-debate-whodunnit takes place. Harp doesn’t want to let Paca — or the audience — forget it. Neither does he, but for a suite of entirely different reasons.   

Tuesday night, that’s where When Marcus Met Toni opened to a full house. Beleaguered but enthused, the two sat ready to spar with pre-canned phrases like “a campaign built on revenge” and “progress with Paca.”  Not a hair was out of place: thanks to a plum costuming department, Harp wore a fire-red dress (although she did not return to the signature Alicia Keys song of the same subject) and Paca a suit, contrasting even with their color schemes. Bass, Hernandez, Quaye and Resto promised to guide the way, stretching a question-peppered narrative over a 90-minute timeframe. 

Christopher Peak for the New Haven Independent. 

Christopher Peak for the New Haven Independent. 

At first, Tuesday’s performance was civil and measured, with a question on tax reform from Hernandez. There was something of quiet verse there (although that could have also been a busted microphone) — Hernandez asked what Paca would do for new streams of tax revenue, with a city budget hanging in the balance. (Special Session: Shit’s Really Hittin’ The Fan is an extended-run musical at the capital right now). 

Channeling his inner Fred Astaire, Paca did a valiant tap dance around the question, working in a smooth bombershay on new job growth and ways to “cut waste in city government.” Foregoing her tap shoes, Harp launched into a monologue of bullet points: New Haven would get an additional 50 million if Yale-New Haven Hospital was taxed. She would support taxing them, she said, if they could get the dollars back for the city's Medicaid program. 

But that civil facade soon began to melt away. On Harp’s handling of police, fire chief and school superintendent terminations and searches (original question from Quaye), Paca blasted the incumbent, citing a failure to lead in a recent showdown with East Haven’s Proud Boys (catch the musical Hate Comes To Town: White’s Rarely Right here) and ongoing search for superintendent of New Haven Public Schools.

Harp supporters look on as Paca speaks. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Harp supporters look on as Paca speaks. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Harp was ready for the punch. In one of her most compelling monologues of the evening, she assured the audience that “I’m a decisive mayor,” and that “When I discover that someone’s character and the way in which they act is not on the line with the people in the city of New Haven and our taxpayers, I will make the decision to let them go.” 

Using no script in her delivery, she looked up at the audience, members nodding and cheering avidly in return. 

Paca wasn’t having it. He went on to knock Harp on education, gentrification, and failing the city’s poorest neighborhoods. From the fourth row in, audience member and Attorney Patricia Kane spun around to a friend behind her. “He’s on fiiire,” she exclaimed.  

Indeed not thirty minutes into the performance — as in the strongest, most fiery political theater — the sparks began to fly. As Bass ushered candidates into a section where they asked questions of each other, gloves slipped off. The stage’s minimal set transformed into a ring of sorts, the podium and microphone nearly glowing red-hot before the audience. The two candidates embarked in a fierce theatrical dance, drawing their sabers when one answer did prove not to be enough. 

Toni Harp came out swinging, asking Paca “how do you propose to get anything done?” with a single term as alder and record of ex-city employee. She blasted his inability to work unions and fellow employees in city government. In a line surprisingly fierce and fiery for her character, she called hiring him was one of the worst decisions she ever made.

Clink clink. The sabers hit on stage, a full-body fencing match underway. 

HarpPaca - 4.jpg

In a decisive, choreographed move that the audience has seen before, Paca went right for the heart, criticizing Harp’s use of a 24-hour security detail (a measure she began using after two shattered windows and suspect tire trouble four years ago).

Sword still drawn, he called for audience participation, singling out fellow ex-city employees Nicole Jefferson and Jackie James while calling Harp’s tenure one that thrives on “character assassinations.” Throughout, he rewrote sections of a working draft that premiered weeks ago, reversing his stance on sanctuary cities to include new protections of immigrants and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, and testing out a few cringe-worthy but experimental lines (“Some of my best friends are Latinos!”)

It proved no turning point: Harp maintained the upper hand, but did not escape unscathed. In the sixth row, a Paca supporter gathered her family, proclaimed that the newcomer still had her vote, and headed home to prepare her kids for school the next day. As audience members milled about after the show, avid event-goer and WNHH Community Radio Host Tom Ficklin called it a clear but narrow victory for Harp. He added that he hopes to see a lot more audience participation on Sept. 12.