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.
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.