BUZZER: Gentrification of the mind and body
I suppressed the urge to twerk all the way to my seat. Volume up, the bass thumping. Professedly, I did bust a move or two (or three), although, looking around, I seemed to be one of only a few audience members in The Public’s Martinson Hall having a tough time keeping still, prior to curtain.
The soundscape, featuring popular contemporary rap and hip-hop tracks, alluded to a milieu steeped in urban party, club and/or youth culture. It also incorporated music from Kendrick Lamar’s most recent album, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015). Due to Lamar’s pointed social critique on race and commentary on contemporary notions of Blackness, I wondered about the intentionality behind its fusion with more traditional party music. While, ultimately, that idea never rose to the plane of consciousness within the play, the aural invitation was energizing. It also served to construct the psychological and emotional space physically surrounding the world of the play; “…an apartment in a transitioning neighborhood in Brooklyn” (The Public Theatre).
Directed by Obie Award-winner Anne Kauffman, Tracey Scott Wilson’s sharp and smoldering BUZZER is a provocative, highly entertaining investigation into gentrification of the mind and body. In the opening presentational-style moments of the play, the audience is introduced to partners, Jackson (Grantham Coleman) and Suzy (Tessa Ferrer), and also to Don (Michael Stahl-David), Jackson’s childhood best friend. Immediately, gentrification — and therefore — race, class, education and substance abuse, all emerge as prominent themes.
Jackson, a successful black attorney, and Suzy, a white school teacher, barely have time to unpack the moving boxes in their new, newly renovated apartment in the aforementioned “transitioning neighborhood,” when Don, also white, comes to crash with the couple after leaving rehab. What ensues is an intricately woven story about a group of people vying for love, power, and safety, while trying to manage a complicated shared history, childhood traumas, and growing resentment toward one another.
There are several peripheral characters, of which only two see stagetime. Arguably, the most important of these offstage characters are the black men that post-up on the corner outside Jackson and Suzy’s apartment. Despite their physical absence, the audience does experience them sonically, through a sequence of loud and often aggressive sound effects. To provide some imperative context, the apartment is located in the neighborhood where Jackson grew up. Regarding location, while all the audience ever learns is that the characters are somewhere in Brooklyn, I made the assumption that the action takes place in, or near, Brownsville. Based on what I learned about the characters, and due to the play’s depiction of violence, I don’t know how well ambiguity served this aspect of the production.
BUZZER’s depiction of the men from the community (and the community at large) was a source of discomfort for me throughout the play. They were continually presented as violent, angry stereotypes without being presented with the opportunity to advocate for (and therefore humanize) themselves. While there were moments that colored these characters with dimension, they were delivered through Suzy and Don, invoking the presence of a white savior complex. At times, Jackson seems to feel similarly, but only when his masculinity is challenged, reading as undeveloped and superficial. Without diminishing the power of Suzy and Don’s moments, which were delivered with power and great empathy, I longed for even a small instance of self-affirmation on the part of these unseen characters.
When I asked myself why these characters don’t get to represent themselves onstage, it occurred to me that — on some level — they actually do. This neighborhood is Jackson’s home, too. Jackson has returned to his old stomping grounds with a world-class education, substantial financial means, and something to prove. He refers to the members of his community as “fuck-ups,” operating with a strong sense of elitism and separatism. So while he doesn’t deny this neighborhood as his home, he certainly doesn’t identify with the offstage community members. And in this way, he does not function as a fair representative for them. Childhood trauma, which in part has led to palpable internalized oppression, results in the most vicious attacks on the neighborhood and its residents coming out of his mouth.
Jackson also makes reference to gentrifying his own neighborhood, ‘othering’ himself from his own community. And the production lacks a substantive conversation about the socioemotional effects of the systematic oppression of a people it’s depicting as laggard and violent. Because of this, what am I supposed to make of this community’s only representative being a black man who disassociates with it to point that his homecoming is an act of willful gentrification? What are the white audience members — for many of whom, these offstage characters are already viewed as dangerous and stereotypically flat — supposed to walk away thinking? We should be able to pose these questions without feeling as though we’re justifying violence and recognizing its effects.
Several productions this season, including Bootycandy and An Octoroon, left me with a searing desire to experience them again, but with audiences containing primarily people of color. For me, the experience then becomes less about self-consciousness and questions about cultural context, and more about a shared understanding; one in which nuanced, but culturally contextualized worldviews might emerge. For similar reasons, I would lump BUZZER into the aforementioned group of productions.
Meaty and thought-provoking, beautifully staged and designed, the play succeeded in posing many weighted questions that I have and will continue to wrestle with, as both a resident of New York City and a global citizen.
Had a white playwright penned BUZZER, it is probable that I would have strongly disliked the show, which I’m not quite sure what to do with yet. However, I also don’t believe that anyone other than a person of color could’ve written such a layered, racialized piece, specific to gentrifying one’s own homespace.
Featuring subtle, electric performances by Grantham Coleman, Tessa Ferrer, and Michael Stahl-David, BUZZER is running through April 26th at The Public Theatre. When you’re waiting for the show to begin, don’t suppress the urge to dance. And see if your neighbor will join you.