Tracey Scott Wilson holds a mirror up to the pioneers of New York gentrification.
A man's home is his castle…or his social statement as is the case in Tracey Scott Wilson's Buzzer, now running at the Public Theater. While the playwright's characters unpack their cardboard boxes in their refurbished Brooklyn abode, Wilson unpacks the concept of "gentrification" — a movement in which her New York audiences no doubt have played a part, although few are likely to view themselves as the pioneering martyrs of real estate depicted onstage. Issues of class, race, and the politics surrounding a community in flux are pulled into an engaging debate about a term whose overuse has zapped it of nearly all meaning. As it turns out, "gentrification" is loaded with meaning as well as unexpected social consequences — perhaps too many for a 90-minute play to fully wrap its arms around.
As he tells us in an opening monologue, a young African-American man named Jackson (Grantham Coleman) has made the conscious decision to jump on the gentrification bandwagon and move to Brooklyn with his white girlfriend Suzy (Tessa Ferrer). Not only is it a neighborhood-on-the-verge, it is the neighborhood Jackson put blood, sweat, and tears into escaping as a boy, earning a scholarship to Exeter, followed by a Harvard undergraduate and law school education. He's a success story of the slums, and yet he has returned for a victory lap through the formerly oppressive streets. His stated goal is to get in on the ground floor of what he sees as the next big thing — "big" being the operative word, as Laura Jellinek's airy set design offers just a subtle peek into Jackson and Suzy's impressively spacious apartment (a teasing glimpse, similar to the one she recently offered in her design of MCC's The Nether, also directed by Buzzer's Anne Kauffman).
Paradoxically, Jackson's fellow Exeter alum Don (Michael Stahl-David) who hails from white privilege, fell into a life of drugs on the streets of this same rough community while he could have been living high on the suburban hog. Fresh from rehab with nowhere to turn, Don joins Jackson and Suzy in their new home (despite Suzy's objections) and the three break in the familiar yet thoroughly unfamiliar environment together.
Stahl-David, with his greasy hair and grungy wardrobe (selected by Clint Ramos), erratically spews Don's tall drug tales like a proud war hero, while Coleman, with a straight posture, filling his clean-cut button-ups, stoically absorbs them like a patient father figure. Ferrer meanwhile bites her lip on the sidelines until she discovers an unlikely confidant in the loser squatter. This unconventional "family" — as the endearingly hyper Don presumptuously calls them — provides an interesting platform for probing disputes. As the three discuss in one of their earliest "family meetings," which Don institutes in an effort to maintain his enlightened policy of honest communication, Jackson's tireless efforts to escape his childhood home may have deprived him of a true understanding and respect for it. On the other hand, Don, as a foreigner, may have seen the neighborhood as an exotic land with which to live out his ghetto fantasies with a trust fund to break his fall.
Suzy, the only Brooklyn newcomer of the three, lands in the line of fire as a group of pre-gentrification natives camp outside her building, yelling sexual and racial slurs as she passes by. Though from their perspective, she is just another unwelcome outsider taking over their home — literally, without a second glance.
Wilson's dialogue fleshes out these conversations much more effectively than their surrounding plot lines. Hints about Don and Jackson's family lives are dropped, though they lead no further than a basic understanding of Don's wealthy upbringing in stark contrast to Jackson's underprivileged youth. Jackson's work life remains similarly hidden, despite the perpetual ping of his cellphone and a passing mention of an unfair assignment. Suzy's job as a schoolteacher (for primarily minority students) also loses prominence in the story after Don delivers an extremely on-the-nose speech to her class about the dangers of drug use and the implicit class divide in its consequences.
By staging the play entirely within the confines of the apartment (occasionally venturing down to the building's lobby), Wilson is forced to tell far more than she can show. All three characters are hindered by this limitation, particularly Jackson, who, as Suzy claims, becomes an unrecognizable alpha male as he passes other black men on the street in her presence. Kauffman does her best to imply the contours of the outside world — each of her actors taking turns staring out the window with different combinations of anger, fear, and confusion and wrestling with the apartment's broken buzzer (hence the title). Ferrer has the benefit of the greatest character arc, through which she skillfully journeys, even as her complex relationship with Don takes several confusing leaps.
The resulting snapshot is an interesting one, illuminating the hidden dimensions of this cultural transformation that realtors rarely include in their property tours. All the apartment needs now is a set of residents with just as many dimensions.