“We’re the gentrifiers—the cops will come when we call.” And that about sums up the privilege + greed combo of this crucial urban issue: the gentrification of neighborhoods. And the locus of that issue, its inevitable center, is race. BUZZER, by Tracey Scott Wilson, concludes Theatre Exile’s season with a provocative and dismaying story, conveyed through complex characters rather than through statistics and theories—exactly what theater can do best. And even more like the particular truth of theater—BUZZER neither comforts us nor resolves the problem: it acknowledges how complicated the issues really are, by acknowledging that any strong story is about people and not about real estate.
Matt Pfeiffer directs a powerful cast: Akeem Davis plays Jackson, an African American lawyer (Exeter, Harvard, Harvard Law) who grew up on these mean streets; his signature is ambition. Alex Keiper plays Suzy, his white live-in girlfriend, a dedicated teacher in a local school; Matteo Scammell plays Don, an old friend of Jackson’s since Exeter, a rich white guy with a history of serious addictions who moves in with them after promising to stay sober. His signature is regret.
The tension in Don and Jackson’s bromance grows as the neighborhood tests their manhood as they try to protect Suzy. You can see it in the walks the actors have created for their characters: Don is all long, easy strides, leaning a little back. There is nothing furtive or desperate in his walk, despite his druggy life on the streets; this is a walk of born-to-privilege. Jackson’s walk is, tellingly, all forward-leaning, a fast, muscular walk that just about announces get-out-of-my-way; this is a walk of determined ambition.
The place: any dangerous neighborhood in any city, but one, probably (judging by the bricks and the windows in Thom Weaver’s set) on the East Coast. The time is clearly now. The real estate opportunities are tempting but require the courage to tough it out for years. Contemplating the risks of moving to this luxuriously rehabbed apartment: “none of our friends will come here. We wouldn’t come here if we didn’t live here.”
The results of such economic temptation can be dangerous; Suzy, glancing out the window to the gang of men hanging on the sidewalk, decides not to go to the store. But all she says is, “I don’t recognize my own thoughts anymore.” Of a woman she knows who lives on another block, where the gentrification is complete, making her apartment worth a small fortune, she says: “she looks like a war victim.”
Wait for the play’s final what-would-you-do moment.
[Theatre Exile, 13th & Reed Streets] May 4-28, 2017; theatreexile.org