As New Yorkers witness the many ways by which their city evolves, we must question the impact the changes have on its inhabitants. More specifically, gentrifying neighborhoods undergo seemingly positive changes that make for a better quality of life. However with neighborhoods similar to Harlem, not everybody is, well, comfortable about the new directions their neighborhoods are going in. In her play Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale, Honorary Sister, Chyann Sapp beautifully captures the varying perspectives held by residents as the Harlem known to them becomes anew.
All participated in the writing of the script but the cast consists of the three multifaceted ladies, Jaylene Clark, Hollis Heath and Janelle Heatley. The opening scene begins with their characters, childhood friends Shayla, Toni and Bridget, reuniting on the stoop of a brownstone one of them grew up in. They all begin to reminiscence about their experiences in the old neighborhood ranging from what candies they used to enjoy and games they used to play. The three characters then begin to worry that their memories of more complex aspects of growing up in Harlem, particularly its cultural vibrancy will become a thing of the past. In Renaissance, the three infuse their background with spoken word, song and dance into traditional theater and create a visionary play that allows us to travel through the rich history of Harlem while exploring the socio-economic issues that make it vulnerable to the gentrification occurring today.
I saw this play about a month ago and vowed to Chyann that I would do my best to support her new project because it is really good play, simply speaking. Renaissance is thoughtful, intelligent, funny and polished. But I was more impressed by how fairly the ladies presented the issues at hand. All grew up in Harlem and with the exception of Janelle who lives in The Bronx, all still reside in there. They witness the larger number of fairly moneyed people now living amongst them, and the restaurants and boutiques that follow them. I get frustrated with debates about gentrification because there is a tendency to oversimplify the issues at hand. It is important for people to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables so the new supermarket down the street is a good thing. But if the prices are out of reach for working class people within the community, then it is no added benefit. Gentrification is more complex than poor people getting pushed out and trendy establishments and Renaissance perfectly displays that.
"We don't want to write an anti-gentrification play," Chyann said to me in an earlier phone conversation."From a personal standpoint, we all know we are benefiting from many of the changes taking place."
In each scene, a typical viewpoint is presented with an alternative one leaving the audience to sometimes challenge their own opinions about how neighborhoods similar to Harlem are changing. Jaylene, Hollis and Janelle's characters articulate their desires to preserve the culture that made Harlem one of the most famous neighborhoods in the world. This includes its history in fine arts, jazz, hip hop, cuisine and especially spoken word. All of the ladies have a background in spoken word and yearn for a modern day renaissance where the cultural beauty will be revitalized amidst an evolving Harlem. A Harlem where white and typically more affluent residents are emerging within a traditionally black and Latino Harlem, much like a belly of a killer whale, the metaphor that ignited the creation of the play itself.
It is refreshing to be moved in the theater. When you go see Renaissance in the Belly Whale, you will be moved, inspired and challenged. You will leave asking yourself questions. Is a gentrifying neighborhood's increased wealth shared amongst the original residents? Isn't more improved public health and security a good thing? Why did it have to take new people in to bring what are largely considered basic rights? Well, those were my personal questions. Go see the play and have your own.
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