Any Chicago resident who watched the demolition of Cabrini-Green projects or the transformation in Chatham the last few years could relate to Goodman Theatre's play "Buzzer." Replace the West Indian restaurant with a currency exchange or liquor store and the rotating two-scene play may as well be any neighborhood on the south or west side. The nail salon, discount variety store, deli/grocery store, lottery spot, Chinese food restaurant and graffiti tagging the signs are all too familiar.
No need to be from New York like the playwright Tracey Scott Wilson to recognize how gentrification can improve and/or destroy a neighborhood, depending on who is asked. And "Buzzer" could be summed up in one word: Fair.
Wilson's play, directed by Jessica Thebus, takes place during the time period when gentrification is in the middle of happening before the usual hood spots are transitioned into coffee shops, malls and corporate business areas.
Jackson (played by Eric Lynch) grew up in this neighborhood and after becoming a successful attorney he makes the decision to move back into his old stomping grounds with his girlfriend Suzy (played by Lee Stark). Suzy is a teacher at an inner-city school. His old neighborhood is more expensive because the neighborhood is changing, but both of them living separately was eating up their bills. Plus, neither of their old places were comfortable enough for two. Their new place in the gentrifying neighborhood has more than enough room.
Jackson's best friend Don (played by Shane Kenyon) talks him into letting him move in for a couple years to get on his feet. Suzy puts her foot down and says Don can only stay for a maximum of six months, and Jackson will say whatever in order for his friend to be able to get on his feet.
Don, a white drug addict, and Jackson, an African-American lawyer, have more in common than one may think. While Don despises his affluent father, Jackson feels just the opposite way about Don's dad. While Jackson struggled with being "too black" in affluent neighborhoods, he wasn't "black enough" in his own lower-income childhood neighborhood. Don's past as a drug user made him more street smart than Jackson, but according to Jackson, Don had white privilege working on his side so he could get away with more in the same neighborhood. But Don always had the luxury of going to his gated fence community whenever he wanted to while Jackson did not.
And now that they're back in the old neighborhood, they're all dealing with their own struggles. Suzy is dealing with fiery-mouthed students who don't quite respect her, but Wilson made sure to not stick this character into a "white teacher saves inner-city kids and learns hip-hop dances at the end" cliched role. Suzy's bigger challenge is being able to tolerate the behavior of the people in her new neighborhood far more than the people in her classrooms. Is she unnecessarily mean to the guys hanging out on the corner yelling out catcalls? Should she continue to ignore Dennis and his crew no matter how much more insulting the comments are? Should she tell Jackson? How much longer does she have to live here? When will the neighborhood change? And how will she ever get used to the outside noises of yelling, racial slurs, booming hip-hop from car stereos and the latest news on crime in the area?
Jackson struggles between living the crazy workaholic lifestyle of a successful attorney with juggling keeping his girlfriend happy and his friend off the streets. But how will he take the news when he finds out Suzy doesn't feel safe? Was it selfish of him to ask Suzy to move back into his old neighborhood to get in good before the neighborhood really takes off? How will he keep Don out of trouble, especially with drug dealers nearby? And how should he take it when his girlfriend keeps assuring him that he's not like "them" outside? Is he being overly sensitive when he talks about "magical Negroes" or are his blunt speculation about race just too hard for others to admit?
Don is trying to stay clean and taking steps one day at a time. But when he finds out that Suzy doesn't feel safe, how does he approach this topic with Jackson knowing full well his friend is not cut out for the lifestyle Don is used to seeing? And what's up with Suzy ignoring that incident in Florida? How long can he live in the new neighborhood before Suzy and Jackson kick him out? And how will he handle the relationship with his father?
All three characters have a lot of drama going on internally and interchangeably. Observing the perceptions of each character when it comes to relationships, violence, racial slurs, questioning views on racism and race, classism and love keep the play exciting. There are moments that'll make the audience jump, gasp, groan and laugh out loud. The writing is intelligent and conversational (minus the nickname "Suze" being used nonstop). The makeup is as detailed as the background scenery, including the track marks on Don's arms. The actors are as talented in their physical acting as they are in their verbal skills. And the speed and depth of the play is just enough to get the point across without preaching.
"Buzzer" is highly recommended and an exceptional conversation starter. The play gave a fair look at every character's best qualities and biggest flaws. Wilson made it difficult to point the finger at anyone in particular, including the corner boys, because unlike many movies, plays and TV shows, she humanized them, too. Smart writing. Attention grabbing. Click here for showtimes and dates.
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