ACTLab and AJ Epstein Presents are in the midst of their run of Buzzer, written by Tracey Scott Wilson and directed by Seattle’s Anita Montgomery. The show follows three Young Urban Professionals who have moved to a depressed neighborhood, with the promise that it will become safer, therefore more desirable, therefore more valuable. I.e., they hope it will gentrify in a few years.
Jackson, the upwardly mobile African-American lawyer, grew up in this neighborhood, and his (white) girlfriend Suze moves in along with him. It isn’t her investment, so she’s less than thrilled, and the stresses are amplified with the arrival of Don, a former drug addict and Jackson’s oldest friend, who apparently has nowhere else to go but the streets, despite his rich family (and despite his underlying crush on Suze).
ACTLab’s cast and crew did well enough with a show that has an unfortunately flat plotline and a jumble of easily-overacted scenes. Speaking from a production standpoint, the show went off without a hitch. Performed in the round, Buzzer uses its small stage to great effect, sectioning off scenes with light and implied set pieces. AJ Epstein’s creative lighting was able to craft new locales and moods with nothing more than a single spot. Tense and believable fight choreography gave way to even more impressive bloody makeup, a refreshing shot of reality in a place that is usually the first to break our suspended disbelief. Anita Montgomery’s direction kept the energy high and tense in the face of more dubiously scripted scenes.
Chelsea LeValley played her character, Suze, with as much nuance as the script allowed, injecting humor, sensitivity and reason into a character that otherwise might not have been so sympathetic. Don’s neuroses were embodied perfectly by Spencer Hamp, adding believable physical anxiety to a character who turned out to be the most moral and steadfast character of the entire show. Though perhaps the most superficially interesting character, Andrew Lee Creech’s Jackson came off as forced and false. Jackson is, arguably, a false person, but even in the moments we expect to see the facade crack and raw honesty to come through, one gets exaggerated and stereotyped monologues of rage, which make one question not just the sincerity of the character but of the play itself.
Here’s the thing about Buzzer: It has all the parts. It has an intimate cast, a fine premise and deals with some heavy themes that no doubt need to be addressed artistically. And yet, just because a play is described as “addressing gentrification and racism in America” does not mean that it offers commentary, that it lends a new interpretation or that it does anything more than place its characters in situations where they happen to point out that they’re exhibiting systemic racism or adding to the strain of a gentrifying neighborhood.
These very real issues demand so much more from the artistic community. Because of the laws and legacies that have limited the ability of black communities to accumulate wealth, such communities are more prone to displacement by the sort of gentrification that actively seeks to erase the past—the very evidence of a racist legacy. When the self-aware gentrifier is an African-American man who grew up in the neighborhood, we are seeing a sort of syndrome of respectability politics, economic inequality and internalized racism among other things.
That’s a lot to unpack, but in Buzzer it is done so mechanically that the feeling one gets is more akin to reading a list of talking points rather than seeing how these problems manifest on a human level, and this flaw is not solved by the added messiness of the love triangle. Injecting soap-opera shocks into an already overt drama does not make a show truly gripping, and a play is not profound because it throws together racism, sexism, adultery, chemical dependency, love, friendship, street harassment, fear and urbanity–all in a 90-minute show.
What Buzzer needs is nuance instead of melodrama. The show is presented as a window into the life of an identifiable group, but the one-dimensional characters and everything-but-the-trendy-farmhouse-kitchen-sink mash of overdramatic scenarios only feels contrived. It runs the risk of allowing audiences to feel they are off-the-hook regarding tough issues without ever feeling even the slightest weight of the real struggle felt by so many communities, families and youths.
One can’t expect Buzzer to deliver a tidy solution, but it could have asked better questions. In 90-minutes, Jackson and Don can’t reconcile their complex cultural identities in a way that magically maps onto the climate in our gentrifying, self-styled progressive cities. Instead of modeling tough discussions, the play lays out bullet points, then spends its energy on contrived drama, adultery and AA meetings. Instead of humanizing its characters, this approach prevents us from further delving into the tangled discomfort that is ostensibly the heart of the play and which is so urgent for the real people facing real crises outside the theatre’s doors.
Buzzer is currently playing at ACT’s Allen Theatre and runs through February 21. See website for details and tickets. The production is accompanied by several community forums addressing issues of race and gentrification in Seattle; the final community forum will take place on Wednesday, February 17 at 6pm.