Chicago Theatre Review
Goodman Theatre: Gentrified and Jumpy
Buzzer – Goodman Theatre
With a black president serving his second term in the White House, America may have grown up a bit with regard to its long history of racial problems and prejudice, but playwright Tracey Scott Wilson, in her latest play, argues that we still have a long, long way to go toward maturity. Racial acceptance is still more of a myth than a reality in America.
In a once-sketchy Manhattan neighborhood, where deteriorated houses and stores have been purchased and renovated by the upper- or middle-class, its former low-income families and small businesses have been gradually displaced. On the plus side, property values have increased, but on the minus side, the original tenants of the neighborhood are gradually being forced to move elsewhere. This is the double-edged sword of gentrification.
Returning to the neighborhood where he grew up Jackson, a young African-American, who has made good and earned a law degree, has decided to purchase and reside in the spacious, newly refurbished apartment that was once his boyhood home. Sharing his new digs with Suzy, his longtime Caucasian girlfriend, and his troubled, white boyhood friend, Don, Jackson is optimistic that their new lives together will become better. Suzy teaches at a tough inner-city school and finds herself torn between wanting to remain in their cramped, older apartment in a safe neighborhood and moving to the roomier, upgraded residence Jackson has rented to buy. Suzy finds herself conflicted because Jackson has invited Don to move in with them for six months while he’s recovering from drug addiction. However, Suzy’s concern about Don sharing their new home goes back a few years to an unspoken incident that’s provoked a sexual tension between the two friends. As hidden secrets fester within the apartment and tensions grow on the street as a result of the gentrification, the relationship of these three friends becomes challenged.
Jessica Thebus directs Ms.Wilson’s second production of this, her latest play, that feels like a 21st century version of “A Raisin in the Sun.” As in Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play, much of the conflict centers around racial tension and a neighborhood’s reaction to the arrival of newcomers moving in. Ms. Thebus seems to allow her cast free rein as they maneuver over and around Walt Spangler’s expansive set that serves as both the apartment’s interior, the building foyer and the street below. Spangler’s use of several large, graffiti-covered business signs speaks volumes about the neighborhood.
The three actors are all excellent. Eric Lynch is strong and in full command as Jackson. With polished civility and just a hint of the ‘hood, Lynch controls this story until the end of the first act. Witnessing this talented actor playing a self-made man who slowly unravels is difficult to watch. Lee Stark’s Suzy is the catalyst for most of what happens in this drama and she’s terrific. Her opening monologue, during which the audience listens to Suzy’s defense of why she acted as she did trying to break up a school fight, sets the tone for this young woman who’s passionate about the truth. As she allows secret romantic feelings to emerge we gradually see another side of Suzy that she’s kept hidden. Shane Kenyon, so frightening and haunting in Book and Lyrics Theatricals’ “Trainspotting USA,” creates here another very different kind of substance-addicted character. As Don, continually struggling with his own demons, Kenyon breaks our heart as the poor rich kid who truly loves and values his friendship with both Jackson and Suzy. It’s when, in a moment of passion, he and Suzy give in to their emotions that the friendship begins to fall apart. As the street threatens outside of the apartment, inside a solid friendship loses its bond. The audience understandably reacts with shock and sadness because three characters we’ve come to know and like are shattering apart.
Change is inevitable and myths become shattered as the world evolves. Hopefully bi-racial relationships will one day become as accepted as the idea that the world is round. Progress continues to be made and improvement grows but it’s never finished. However, with talented, perceptive playwrights, like Tracey Scott Wilson, the important questions continue to be asked reminding us that we still have a long way to go.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 8-March 9 by the Goodman Theatre in the Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 312-443-3800 or by visiting their website at www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Buzzer.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.