🎭 The Dark Side of Gentrification | “West Adams” @ Skylight Theatre

West Adams (Skylight Theatre)Gentrification. Wikipedia defines it as “a process of changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses.” Merriam Webster defines it as “a process of changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses.” The key factor that these definitions have in common is that affluent residents move in, and the poorer people get pushed out. In the 1960s, this process was called “urban renewal”, and (back then) you saw poorer people get pushed out for businesses and civic monuments — such as Dodger Stadium and the Music Center.

In Los Angeles, there have only been a handful of plays that have explored the subject of gentrification. In This Land, presented by Company of Angels in 2017, the story of gentrification was told by focusing on a single plot of land in Watts, showing how the land passed from family to family: Gabrielino tribal land to the Spanish, from the Spanish to the (white) Americans, from the whites to the blacks, from the blacks to the Hispanics, until the whites started moving back in, gentrifying, pushing out the Hispanics in the name of progress.  That play emphasized the commonalities in the cultures, but it also showed some of the hatred that came when new and different people moved in. The play Remembering Boyle Heights, presented by Casa 0101, presented the history of Boyle Heights — a community that often faced redlining and became a melting pot of immigrants and minorities because it was the only place they could live… and a community that is also seeing its poorer residents being pushed out as the white investors come in with their art galleries and trendy restaurants.

This brings us to West Adams, a new play developed by SkyLab, the resident playwright’s program (directed by Lee Blessing) and written by Penelope Lowder, currently being presented by the Skylight Theatre Company (FB). West Adams explores another gentrification story in Los Angeles, this time in the Historic West Adams community. Once a trendy white community, this community in the post WWII era became increasingly black and hispanic. Recently, it has been a prime area for investors and the folks who chase the trends to move into for the beautiful 1920s houses. If you want an easy example, look at the sitcom The Neighborhood. Based on the houses, this likely takes place in West Adams — and yes, the white couple there, while comically portrayed, are gentrifying the neighborhood.

This play concerns some different couples, perhaps with different motives. Michael Hills (Clayton Farris (⭐FB)) and his wife Jullie Cho Hills (Jenny Soo (FB)) have moved from a crappy Santa Monica apartment to West Adams, and own a bouncy castle business. They operate this business with the help of their friends Edward (Andres M. Bagg) and Sarah Apaza (Allison Blaize (FB)). Michael sponsored Edward for his green card and brought him over from Peru. They are attempting to get their performance of the Star Spangled Banner into the West Adams Block Party (they must audition), and Michael has donated a number of bouncy houses to the party. Then new neighbors move in across the street, renovating the dilapidated house into a palace. The Hills and Apaza’s are happy about this, as they appear to be white and wealthy. Later they learn that the actual buyer is a black ENT with a practice in Beverly Hills, who knows lots of stars. But they are still happy, because these connections mean more visibility and upward mobility.

But when the new family starts being liked more by the neighborhood council, and getting exemptions from the rules, things start to simmer. When a trip to the African American Museum turns into a tirade on the problems with white privilege, they heat up more. And when the Hills and Apaza’s lose the privilege they had, and start to see the neighborhood not wanting the improvements they want to bring… let’s just say that it gets real ugly. Really, really, ugly.

West Adams shows a much darker (if that’s the right word to use) motive behind gentrification: overt racism and classism. In the play, the motives for moving to West Adams is not the overt “buying the best house for the least money” (which is often stated as the reason for gentrification), or the fact that it is “a good investment”, but for the betterment of the neighborhood. This betterment is not defined as making the neighborhood better for the people that live there, and preserving the culture of the people that live there, but rather bringing in the culture that we (i.e., the white gentrifiers) think is the better culture, and pushing out the lower class and poorer minorities that live in these houses (often giving them pennies on the dollars, while making money on the investments). The play posits that, for at least some people, gentrification is just another form of purification — of making portions of the city over into the culture that they think is the better culture.

[ETA: An interesting thought hit me this morning regarding this: When non-whites have moved into traditionally white neighborhoods, this hasn’t been viewed as gentrification and there haven’t been claims that these non-white have been attempting to treat their culture as superior and impose it (in fact, from the white point of view, the opposite has been said: these folks moving in are lowering values). Yet when we have the gentrification situation, the white moving in attempt to impose their values to “improve” the neighborhood. I see some parallels in my head of Christians moving in and imposing Christian values to “improve” societies. What does this say, overall, about the implied privilege, and why that implied privilege leads people to view one culture, religion, or values as superior — when in reality, there is often no such weighting and judging the value of a culture is itself bias. See, this is what plays do — they make you think.]

In presenting this story, West Adams does what theatre is supposed to do: make you think, and make you confront something that makes you uncomfortable. Theatre isn’t always a story with a light and happy ending, with song and dance and laughter in your heart. Sometimes it is the darker stories, such as last week’s The Last Ship about the death of a community when the wealthy shipyard owners close a business for economic reasons, or West Adams where we see the unspoken racism in this country as a factor in gentrification. The shows I’ve cited here from Company of Angels, Casa 0101, and Skylight also do what is very important in Los Angeles: Having theatre that is not only presented in Los Angeles, but is about Los Angeles, and tells stories that make Los Angeles think about its place and what it is doing. West Adams is also a significant show in juxtaposition with the larger story of what is happening in this country under the Trump administration, where white supremacy is increasingly out in the open and accepted by the administration. How would President Trump feel about the family in this story? Would he be giving them the President Medal of Freedom for what they are doing. All these factors make this show something that should really be seen.

Lastly, an it is in some sense a spoiler, there is reference to rape in this show, and of possibly false #MeToo like accusations being weaponized. If that is a sensitive subject for your, be forewarned. The N-word is also used once.

Under the direction of Michael A. Shepperd (FB), the family is quickly believable and their behavior makes sense. This feels not like a stereotypical group, but a group you could imagine being friends with. In other words, Shepperd does a great job of making them be (insert emphasis and pauses) just (pause) like (pause) you. In doing so, he makes us confront whether this form of racism and behavior is within us. Shepperd does a great job of working with the actors and crafting a presentation that is believable, and that flies by in a short 85 minutes. About the only thing I didn’t like was the mechanical choreography between scenes.

I’ve mentioned the cast above (unlike my usual approach), but I’d like to highlight how much I liked them and how well they worked as an emsemble. I read one review that liked the story but didn’t think the cast had jelled. They saw it opening night, which is perhaps not the best time to see a show. I saw it a week after opening, and the cast has really jelled into believable and likable couples. This makes the ugly in the latter half of the play even more shocking. All of the cast — Clayton Farris (⭐FB), Jenny Soo (FB), Andres M. Bagg and Allison Blaize (FB) — are just great.

Turning to the production and creative side. Stephen Gifford (FB)’s set design presents the basic front room of a house, in which all the action takes place. This design works well with the direction to believably create the new family’s house across the street. This imaginative solution is aided by the inventive sound design of Jesse Madapat, which creates the moving trucks and the parties sonicly placed behind the audience. David Murakami (FB)’s projection design augments the location providing movement and maps between the scenes. Mylette Nora‘s costume design seemed appropriate up-scale for the aspirations of these couples, and Donny Jackson‘s lighting design established time and mood well. Rounding out the production credits: Michael O’Hara (FB) Props; Michael Teoli (FB) Original Music; Judith Borne Publicist; Guillermo Perez Graphic Design; Raul Clayton Staggs Casting; Garrett Crouch Rehearsal Stage Manager; Christopher Hoffman Production Stage Manager; Jen Albert Fight Coordinator; Amy Pelch Associate Producer; Andrew Brian Carter Assistant Director; Gary Grossman and Michael Kearns Producers.

West Adams continues at the Skylight Theatre Company (FB) in Los Feliz through March 8. Tickets are available through the Skyline box office; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. If you are a student of Los Angeles or the impacts of gentrification — or just like good theatre — go see this.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Today brought the $5 Shakespeare Company from The Sixth Act (FB) at Theatre 68 — writeup coming up in a day or three. The third weekend brings A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB). To top all of that, the fourth weekend brings  The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. The last weekend is open, but I’ll probably find some theatre in Madison WI when I’m out there; alas, I’ll be missing both Nefesh Mountain at Temple Israel of Hollywood and Tom Paxton and the Don Juans at McCabes.

March starts with Passion at Boston Court (FB) the first weekend. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner (and possibly The Wild Party at Morgan Wixson). The 3rd brings Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last weekend brings Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) and the MoTAS/TBH Seder. April is similarly busy: the 1st weekend is Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); the 2nd is during Pesach and is open (but has Count Basie at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the Thursday before); the 3rd is Once on This Island at the Ahmanson Theatre; the last is Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) (and possibly Hands on a Hardbody at the Charles Stewart Howard Playhouse (FB)), and the first weekend of May is Mean Girls at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB)

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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