Gentrification is as ubiquitous as iPhones and avocado toast and vloggers. It’s an offhand comment, “Oh, yeah, that neighborhood is being gentrified,” or it’s the after-work happy hour topic at a table of 20-something do-gooders, “I just feel so bad about those people being pushed out.” As you’re reading this, it’s happening in Charleston, right now. It’s been happening in larger cities for decades. Historically lower income neighborhoods, often populated by minorities, are being bought out by boutique hotels and hip coffee shops and “new American with a Southern twist” oyster bar/barbecue/small plate eateries with shallow identities and deep pockets. Rents go up, families are forced out, and questions of who’s right and who’s wrong linger long after the construction dust has settled.
Coastal Stage Productions (CSP), a Ridgeland, S.C.-based traveling theater company, tackles gentrication and its myriad baggage in Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize winning spin-off of A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park.
“It’s [Clybourne Park] amazing, it’s not gratuitous, it just flows,” says CSP director Luke Cleveland. Cleveland, who co-owns the company with partner and CSP producer Rodney Vaughn, says he felt it was important for the rural theater troupe to present this play — which is set in an urban Chicago neighborhood in 1959 and in 2009 — in 2017 South Carolina.
“I’m from Ridgeland, and Rodney is from a coal fields town; we’re from places that are not nice to minorities. We selected the play over a year ago, but yes, it’s very relevant now,” says Cleveland. As neighbors war against each other about whether or not monuments and flags should come down, the makeup of neighborhoods continues to change, with issues of race teeming beneath the surface, rapidly overflowing into viscious vitriole.
“As we’re doing this as a cast we find surprising areas of sensitivity,” says Cleveland. “We took more time than any other play to put this together. The subject matter has been hard. Developing racist characters has been hard. The play really shows everyone’s hang ups with race, not just one side.”
Clybourne Park‘s first act centers on an African-American couple who is attempting to purchase a house in an all-white Chicago neighborhood. Fast-forward half a century to act two, which takes place in the year 2009 with a white couple trying to move into an all-black neighborhood, the same Clybourne Park.
The 1959 and 2009 storylines are interwoven, says Cleveland, with the same actors playing different characters. A hesitant white couple from 1959 becomes the all too eager white couple trying to move into the all-black neighborhood in 2009, with hopes to raze and rebuild their new home. Act one’s African-American housekeeper, Francis, and her husband, Albert, are played by the same actors in act two, becoming housing board representativies Kevin and Lena, who are unwilling to have this house torn down.
“It’s an examination of gentrification over a generation,” says Cleveland. And today, Cleveland urges that, “This is Park Circle. You have what’s going on on James Island. You have what’s going on downtown.” Cleveland, a College of Charleston alum, knows the area, and since leaving in 2001, Cleveland says the city has changed immensely. “The people in these neighborhoods, where are they to go? It’s just a cycle that keeps repeating itself.”
Cleveland says that for this production, he’s going to do something he usually doesn’t do. “I’m going to give a director’s speech. We need to invite the audience to laugh.” If laughing at lines of commonplace, casual racism coming from circa 1950s white characters makes you wary, Cleveland gets that. “Racism in 1959 was tragic but it was ridiculous, the things that would come out of peoples’ mouths. I want the audience to feel free enough to laugh.” Cleveland said that as a cast, the topic came up: Is it OK for us to laugh at this script, it is racist to laugh? “It’s OK if people leave bothered,” says Cleveland. “If people leave before it’s over. We need there to be a response, that’s art to us.”
Cleveland says that his cast has found the play, “tragically poignant.” “There is a lot of hidden tragedy that comes to life, and I think most people will leave with a lump in their throat,” he says. There’s also some strong language, Cleveland warns, and some skewering of the hipster “white savior” complex, he promises. No matter the reception, Cleveland is looking forward to what comes next. “We just hope that when the audience leaves, that the play will spur a conversation.”