What happens when you contribute to the gentrification of the neighborhood you grew up in?
This is just one of the many complicated questions playwright Tracey Scott Wilson takes on in “Buzzer,” playing through Feb. 21 at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT). The play examines privilege, street harassment, gentrification and money through the eyes of three young adults.
Jackson, played by Andrew Creech, is a successful African American lawyer who convinces his white girlfriend Suzy (Chelsea LeValley) to move into an apartment he recently purchased. The place is a new development, located just blocks away from his childhood home. Despite Suzy’s resistance, Jackson invites his lifelong best friend Don (Spencer Hamp), a recovering drug user looking for temporary stability that he finds in their new home.
As the two men look from the apartment window, they see memories of their childhood, very different memories despite Don’s stint living with Jackson and his family. Don, who is white, used to buy drugs on the street corners and has stories that romanticize the crime in the neighborhood. Jackson, on the other hand, expresses his disdain of the environment and prefers the green lawns and white picket fences of Don’s family home.
The dynamic of the three friends is tense and increases as the struggles of the characters are unveiled. Suzy struggles with the men on the corner who catcall her, Jackson struggles with Don being the “white boy who survived the ghetto bullshit.” Don strives to stay on good terms with Jackson and Suzy by remaining sober, but his brutal honesty begins to take a toll on their friendship.
“Buzzer” addresses complicated and charged issues effectively because of the dynamic relationship between the three characters. It begins to poke at a missing piece within the mainstream conversation regarding gentrification: The role of the middle class Black Americans and where their experiences lie in shifting neighborhoods.
Jackson is a perfect example of the complex ideas regarding this concept. He proudly names the trio “the gentrifiers,” saying that if they were to call 911, police officers would come in a timely manner. Yet the question of his race and how it factors into the way he is treated in the neighborhood remains untouched, challenging the audience to think about what it means to be a gentrifier and whether class, race or both have a role in depicting someone as such.
Different manifestations of privilege are also scattered throughout the play. When Suzy tells Jackson about a white friend who endured life in a “shitty neighborhood” for the reward of artisanal coffee shops and yoga studios down the block, she displays her own privilege in assuming staying and going is optional.
This presents a different narrative than the one seen in Seattle. The city’s Central District, a historically Black neighborhood, was created as a result of redlining practices. Property laws outlawed communities of color from settling in neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill and Green Lake, forcing them into other pockets of Seattle. Today, the stories of families in the Central District or Yesler Terrace who were unable to stick around and forced out due to financial strain are abundant. The majority of these people have been pushed out to South Seattle or suburbs, unlike Jackson who is forced to examine his own privilege when he moves up as a wealthy African American.
Through Jackson and Suzy’s interracial relationship, we enter another plot point that is wrought with personal conflict. Suzy is harassed by street corner loiterers about her relationship with Jackson, which puts a strain on her interactions with him. This leads to further conflicts between the two that revolve around perceptions and stereotypes of black men. While their relationship could be a play in its own right, in “Buzzer” it is used as a tool to allow audiences to clearly see the neighborhood from different perspectives and to showcase racism in the form of unnecessary fear. The dynamics between Suzy and Don succeed in telling the common story of gentrification through intertwining personal narratives.
The play is rarely light, but does have laughable moments that are a welcome break from serious themes. Playwright Wilson succeeds in bringing all these themes together and in using relationships, housing and property as a vehicle for conversations about race and privilege.
Community conversations about the play are happening throughout its run. Panel discussions with different community leaders will discuss race relations, Seattle’s gentrification and other themes in the play. To learn more, visit bit.ly/actbuzzer.
Written by Tracey Scott Wilson | Directed by Anita Montgomery
Featuring Andrew Lee Creech, Chelsea LeValley and Spencer Hamp | 90 minutes, no intermission,
Tickets can be purchased here.