On Monday night, Ira David Wood III, the celebrated local actor who has run Raleigh's Theatre in the Park since 1972, welcomed an estimated crowd of 1,800 to the Durham Performing Arts Center, the city's new 2,800-seat, $46.8 million downtown theater.
It may seem strange that a Raleigh icon emceed such an auspicious Durham occasion, filled as it was with politicians and longtime city boosters. In many ways, though, Wood's presence Monday night represents the best of what DPAC can offer local culture.
"It opens up another whole option," Wood said following the center's opening ceremony, referring specifically to his production of A Christmas Carol. Last year, the play celebrated its 32nd year in Raleigh. For the first time ever, though, Woods is bringing it to Durham for three performances with hopes of expanding its reach beyond the Triangle. "Hopefully, it will allow us to bring in some crowds from Burlington and Winston-Salem."
During the weeks leading up to Monday's spectacle, many Durham residents seemed swept into a swell of pride inspired by the sight of the city's newest public space, all clean glass and bright red brick. People were giddy about its beauty, its size and the fact that it holds more people than any other theater in the Carolinas. They were especially thrilled that something like this exists in Durham, a city whose cultural assets tend to get overlooked for Raleigh and Chapel Hill. But Wood's production is the only local project currently booked at DPAC (though the Durham-based American Dance Festival plans to use the space next summer), a theater that, by design, kowtows more to imported productions than local works. For that to succeed, Durham has to welcome its neighbors into its new digs.
Introducing musicians Mel Melton and B.B. King to Sunday's sold-out opening night crowd, Dianne Pledger practically shouted, "Durham is on the map." One would have assumed that Pledger would have long considered Durham to be on the map. For two decades, the N.C. Central graduate has headed St. Joseph's Historic Foundation, a city-supported arts organization that works to preserve Durham's strong black economic and cultural roots through arts, education and the Bull Durham Blues Festival. Pledger's administration nearly lost $58,000 in city funding earlier this year, though she's brought dozens of blues legends to Durham through her own efforts. Sunday, though, she celebrated DPAC as though her big bookings—and the city itself—finally count.
On Monday night, a half-dozen key figures responsible for the project—state Sen. Floyd McKissick, architect Phil Szostak and Mayor Bill Bell—followed her lead. They tipped rhetorical hats to local works, but announced that this was a new era for culture in Durham.
But DPAC's not for local culture, really. It's for national entertainment, massive shows mostly created elsewhere and funneled through a set of theaters similar to DPAC across the world. Unlike Raleigh's smart, versatile four-theater Progress Energy Center (which will soon include a 5,000-capacity amphitheater), DPAC's monolithic design means it can only house certain types of shows—very big touring bands, very big dramas, very big celebrities. That is, nothing that local or that different from, say, Atlanta or Omaha.
DPAC officials consistently insisted that what Durham now has is unique—by comparing it to other cities with similar buildings. McKissick called it "a venue that is not like anything between Washington and Atlanta." Nick Scandalios—a representative from PFM/ Nederlander, the company that will operate DPAC, for at least the next five years—called the hall "an instant landmark." Then he listed a dozen Broadway shows with which his company was working that may eventually wind their way into Durham—Shrek the Musical, Dolly Parton's 9 to 5, Arthur Laurents' new take on West Side Story—before or after going into similar halls elsewhere.
And then there's "Sleep No More," a light sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa that sits several yards away from DPAC's side entrance (the one opposite the 736-inmate-capacity prison next door, natch). Two years ago, Raleigh rejected a $2.5 million Plensa light system that would have canopied the reopened Fayetteville Street, "North Carolina's Main Street." Capitol Broadcasting Corporation President and CEO Jim Goodmon offered to pay for the project but withdrew his offer after the City Council backed away from the original design for the street's city plaza. This time, Goodmon himself hired Plensa to build a sculpture, one 7,000-watt bulb aimed into the sky. Last night, he donated it to the city.
Afterward, it was surely a sight: Necks strained and the LCD screens of hundreds of digital cameras filled the air. Kids huddled around the bulb's protective fence, marveling at the dust swirling in the light's path. One remarked it was like a signal light "in one of those old movies" that directed planes to safety.
Expect that wow factor to last through the end of the year. Plensa's most famous piece, Chicago's "Crown Fountain," cycles through the faces of 1,000 citizens in the city's Millennium Park. It is of the people, and it's dynamic. Similarly, his work for the BBC, "Breathing," begins to glow with each night's 10 p.m. newscast, a reminder of journalists who have died in service to their industry. Both works have significance within their settings.
But "Sleep No More"—a thin cylinder of pale light that, Monday night, wasn't nearly as distinct as Plensa suggested it would be in his proposed sketches—reflects only ordinary inspirations and mundane meanings. It's nothing more than light rising through the dark, a one-shot metaphor signaling Durham's "upward economic and cultural transformation," to quote a press release. During the day, it just sits, a glass hole surrounded by a metal fence surrounded by a Shakespeare quote inscribed in a spiral. It's suspect to complain, of course, when it's a gift to the city, but there is a feeling, too, of one-upmanship.
Referring to the ill-fated Plensa proposal in Raleigh, Goodmon said, "A lot of people have come up to me tonight and said, 'You know, Raleigh was really stupid to not do this. And I said, 'You're damned right they were.'" The crowd laughed and whooped at the longtime Raleighite's jab at the capital city's apparent failure. One man screamed "All right." "But what we're doing here doesn't have anything to do with the plan for Raleigh," Goodmon continued. "That's over. ... This is not instead of anything. This is ours."
For DPAC and the Triangle at large, that's the wrong message. DPAC is, in the end, a big beautiful facility, thoughtfully designed with regard to spectator sightlines and room acoustics. But it's too much to claim for Durham alone, which doesn't regularly fill the theaters it already has. Three weeks ago, for instance, Duke Performances had to give away tickets for shows that cost much less than the average DPAC seat.
For DPAC to work for the city that built it, it has to sell a lot of tickets for a lot of money about 100 times a year. And, if the city's plan works, those people will eat at downtown restaurants and drink at nearby pubs. But those spectators have to come from Chapel Hill and Raleigh and Greensboro and many points beyond, just as Wood suggests. DPAC is 500 seats larger than Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium, twice the size of Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall, and four seats shy of New York's Carnegie Hall. It's huge. The "ours" of Goodmon's speech in Monday night's shivering cold should refer to the region or to the state, not to the Bull City's own rising light.