It’s a familiar scenario: a lower income part of town receives an influx of young, new tenants seeking more affordable housing. The result? Posh boutiques stocked with $100 T-shirts replace modest retail vendors, iPad-tapping hipsters pop up in trendy book shops, and family owned corner stores turn into coffee shops. Eventually, longtime residents are chased out by increasing rent prices and property values. Gentrification is nothing new to American cities — Charleston certainly deals with it — but it is undoubtedly intertwined with the subject of discrimination. In the wake of a presidential election smeared with issues of race and class, Professor Joy Vandervort-Cobb and her theater students at the College of Charleston undertake Tracey Scott Wilson’s play Buzzer, a story fraught with inequality and introspection.
Unlike most stories of gentrification, Wilson’s main character — a young, successful lawyer named Jackson — is a black man who moves back to the neighborhood where he grew up in Brooklyn because of the rapid developments taking place. This twist is precisely what drew Director Vandervort-Cobb to the story. “I love pieces that flip the script on you,” she says. “An African-American gentrifier? I love it. And he’s surrounded by these white people that moved in with him — one of whom is a recovering addict, the other his girlfriend, a teacher in a Title I school who thought everything would be easier since she ‘understood all these black people.’ Not. Tracey Scott Wilson is known for turning things upside down. I love the authenticity of the language, the lessons that are learned. I love the text.”
Though almost the entire play takes place inside the three friends’ apartment, the story deals with both the tension experienced outside those four walls and within each of the characters. Confronted with issues of race and class, and where they intersect, the characters question their own integrity and perspective of the world. Jackson’s recovering alcoholic friend Don grew up in the same gritty Brooklyn neighborhood but still reaped some of the benefits of white privilege. Meanwhile Jackson’s girlfriend Suzy thought she possessed an empathic sensitivity towards the Brooklyn natives’ situation, until she finds herself reacting to the neighborhood in a less than positive manner. The challenges they encounter with their own internal values and beliefs open a deep discussion into race and class relations.
“Tracey Scott Wilson is always on the edge of something,” says Vandervort-Cobb, “and in many ways it’s a denial of some part of your cultural make-up — an attempt to make yourself appear to be something you are not. That’s a losing game, and I like to see her characters wrestle with it, come to some truth, and decide how much truth they are willing to tell.” Especially true for Jackson, he must come to terms with the realization that his move back to Brooklyn is hurting the very people he grew up alongside.
Profoundly written and thoughtfully produced, the story is as much about self-discovery as it is about America as a nation. “It is a continual reflection to me that the economic situation in this country combined with cultural and ethnic experiences determine your reality,” says Vandervort-Cobb. So, what can we take away from a story such as this? “Remember that the displaced are people too,” Vandervort-Cobb encourages. “The anger and resentment you may encounter might be a reflection and reaction to your behavior.”
Overseeing the production of the play alongside Vandervort-Cobb are two student assistant directors Clyde Moser and N. Leon Williams. Both seniors at the College, these two students are directly involved with the play’s production, often staging scenes on their own and collaborating with Vandervort-Cobb on decisions and arrangements. “I want to share ownership with them; I think that’s how they learn,” she says. All the students involved have put an immense amount of time and work into the production beginning in the fall of 2016 with costume, lighting, and set designs. I’m surrounded by students for whom a number of firsts are happening: first design, first lead at the College, first this, first that — all them have thrown themselves into the needs of this script,” she explains.
What is she most proud of about this particular production? “Their willingness to have me screaming at them about race, about not discounting a line that is glaring and painful, reminding them that the empathy demanded of them in this kind of piece will not be ignored, and them taking it in? The work they’ve done in 15 days to put this beast up and feel and learn in the midst of jobs and real life? My students make me hella proud.”