Gentrification and the American Dream

Steven Simoncic’s Broken Fences, directed by Ann Filmer and Ilesa Duncan, is a nuanced and sophisticated look at gentrification. It focuses on the Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago, located perhaps six miles from Berwyn, the close-in suburb in which 16th Street Theater makes its home. 16th Street Theater has been, of late, much lauded, winning awards from Broadway in Chicago, Chicago Magazine, and the American Theatre Wing, producing world premieres in its intimate theater in the basement of the Berwyn Cultural Center. Simoncic is the theater’s 2013 playwright-in-residence, and his work has been gaining both critical recognition and productions at venues across Chicago and New York. 

They play opens to Czar (Scott Allen Luke) and April (Kirsten D’Aurelio), a white couple, moving into their new home. They’ve sold their condo and, five years into marriage and expecting their first child, are both excited and scared to own a house.  “A condo isn’t a home,” Czar explains, “A house is a home.” While single-family homes do exist in the affluent, predominantly white Chicago neighborhoods real estate agents call “the Green Zone,” they are out of the price range of most middle class families. When Czar and April outgrow their condo, they are faced with a choice: move to either the suburbs or a more “adventurous” neighborhood in which they could afford the home of their dreams.

Choice is, of course, the province of privilege. Their African American next door neighbor D (Krenee A. Tolson) points this out, “People from this hood are here ‘cause they have to be, not because they want to be.” D and her fiancé Hoody (Daniel Bryant) live in the house Hoody inherited from his mother, who inherited it from her mother before her. It is “almost paid off” and is the only home either of them has ever known. They get by on Hoody’s job at Jiffy Lube while D studies to be a hair stylist. We learn of tragedies in their past, but in the present, they are a hardworking middle-class couple grasping for the brass ring of the American dream.

Two actors on stage
Steven Simoncic's Broken Fences at the 16th Street Theater. Image by 16th Street Theater. 

When Czar and April move in next door, Hoody and D are wary but welcoming. D gives April a quilt square—a neighborhood tradition symbolizing the beginning of a new venture. But the neighborhood is shifting under Hoody and D’s feet. A Starbucks has opened. Hoody’s half brother Marz (Eric Lynch) has started teaching ‘boot camp’ exercise classes to white people in the local park. And with the upscale renovation and sale of the house next door, Hoody’s property assessment has gone up—and so his property tax bill has tripled. While Marz identifies the rising property values as an opportunity to sell high and get out, Hoody and D just want to figure out how to pay their property tax bill to stay in their home. 

 

This approach to the issue of gentrification is complex and subtle, and in a post-performance talkback, seemed somewhat lost on the audience of mostly middle-class looking white people

 

Broken Fences treats gentrification with nuance. The white couple is well meaning and April, in particular, wants to integrate into the community. The audience is given their friends Spence (Bradford Lund) and Barb (Tasha Anne James) as a foil: white folks who chose to move to the suburbs, and while much humor is found at Spence and Barb’s expense, Czar and April are pretty clearly not terrible people by comparison. But their presence, however well-intentioned, causes real hardship and disruption for the neighbors they genuinely want to befriend. Their newly-renovated dream home raises Hoody and D’s tax bill beyond what they can afford.  By moving into the neighborhood, Czar and April are inadvertently forcing Hoody and D out. Czar and April cannot reconcile this tension.

This approach to the issue of gentrification is complex and subtle, and in a post-performance talkback, seemed somewhat lost on the audience of mostly middle-class looking white people. When asked for responses to the play, audience members regaled the actors and the playwright with stories of their own experiences of gentrifying neighborhoods—highlighting moments in which they felt afraid and moments in which other white neighbors, who had also moved into their working-class neighborhoods, just didn’t try hard enough to ‘get’ neighborhood norms.

In these stories, audience members framed themselves as open minded and “adventurous.” I was disappointed they could not see how power and privilege enabled them to have choices their neighbors did not seem to have. In their stories, my heart sank. I was disappointed that this excellent production of this well-written play could not get some of us to internalize the play’s central messages.

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It was powerful, well-written and performed. It's happening throughout Chicago and even here in Berwyn, as city leaders try to find a nice balance of businesses that appeal to people in the entire economic spectrum, and keep property taxes at a reasonable level. Too much of a skew in any direction changes the character of the community and pushes people out.

Economic disparity is growing all over the country. While I like driving into neighborhoods in Chicago and seeing nice streetscaping, hip trendy businesses and well-maintained old homes and flats, I also like grit. Grit means that there are old people with fixed incomes surviving and thriving, struggling families maintaining a home and their human dignity, parks filled with families on the holidays, and restaurants where you can get some eggs and coffee without wondering who's coming through the door next.

When a community loses the balance and pushes people out, it's progress for only a few, and a big hit to the town's soul.

Theater is dialogue, so a big thanks to Dani for opening this door! As founder/Artistic Directorof 16th Street Theater, I have a lot of opinions about post-show dialogues and what I want from them.

While Dani says her heart sank during the discussion, I had the opposite reaction: my heart soared. Not because I liked or disliked what was said but because it was being said out-loud in the first place. Theater is dialogue.

What I don’t want is for the audience to ask questions on process or artistic matters such as, “Why did you make that choice?” “What was your intention?” “How did you make that moment work?” or everyone’s favorite, “How did you learn all those lines?”

What we do want here at 16th Street is to hear what the play on stage makes you think about. How does it relate to your life? Was there amoment that will stick with you and why? What will you talk about on the ride home? What is eating at you? We give the audience the task of speaking openly and honestly; we give them the task of being unafraid to speak their truth. We especially love when people in the audience (respectfully) disagree and debate with each other.

Now I am making an assumption here, but I wish Dani had spoken up with her thoughts on that night’s discussion as we could have confronted that right there and then. Next time, please call us on it!

Of course people can only bring to the table their own experiences -- which is why we need more diversity in our audiences, and maybe that is what Dani is responding to here. I certainly agree which is why we made a concerted effort with BrokenFences to bring a diverse audience to 16th Street. We understood if we only had white people in the audience, we failed. The conversation wants to be one between not just black and white, but also between people of diverse socio-economic groups, diverse levels of education, and diverse cultures.

Did we fail? Yes and no. Our audience, like most all theaters across the country unfortunately, was predominantly white. Was it all white? Not even close. Was it diverse in terms of class? Absolutely. Was it too many of one kind of person in the room? Probably, prompting me to joke to Managing Director Eddie Sugarman during the extension: “When a play is successful the white people just come out of the woodwork! They can’t help themselves!”

But is this a bad thing? Should I be dissing on my own people for being interested in these stories? And should I be dissing on them for wanting to talk about these stories in the context of their own lives? No. We all have something to being to the table. Even those white people of privilege. Opening up the dialogue is just the first step.

Thank you, Dani, for opening up this dialogue. I, too, often disagree with comments made during post-shows, but as a groupie of Anna DeavereSmith I go back to her words:

"My sense is that American character lives… not in what has been fully articulated, but in what is in the process of being articulated, not in the smooth-sounding words, but in the very moment that the smooth-sounding words fail us. It is alive right now. We might not like what we see, butin order to change it, we have to see it clearly.”

I saw it a few weeks ago and, as I told the cast and playwright and everyone else afterwards, I thought it was one of the best plays I've seen in years!

I'm surprised by the audience reaction the night you were there, as it doesn't match my experience at all. (I'm curious... what date were you there?) I thought the post-show discussion was very interesting, and that people "got it".

At least I know I did... I was very outspoken (especially at a post-staged reading discussion in July) that I (even though I'm a white guy who lives in the suburbs) related by far mostly to Hoody and his primal (as I put it) desire to keep his home.

And I added that the fundamental (if unstated) villain of the situation is the government's (read: white man's) policy of increasing property taxes on people (even those they know can't possibly afford it) just because in theory they could sell their house for a lot more than they could have in the past.

But obviously that theoretical ability to sell means nothing to most long-time owners (who have no way of paying the increased taxes). Thus a more just tax policy would be one that only increases property taxes if one actually sells the property (and/or significantly taxes the sale of the property itself).

And since the policy is evil, those who take advantage of the policy, including Czar and April, are at least somewhat complicit in that evil. (Which is one of the reasons I still live in the suburbs.)

Okay, as usual I've rambled on too long. I hope, Dani, that you were just there on an off (audience) night.