by Ed Malin · July 12, 2014
Now Harlem…or Gentrify This“, the new play written by and starring Latonia Phipps, is now playing at University Settlement (the first community center in the USA, located on the long-gentrified Lower East Side).
Joanne, a poet professionally known as “Harlem” (Phipps) and her potential boyfriend, Flo (Ian Jackson) watch from the stoop of their Uptown New York City building as the very white-looking California transplant, Rita (Sarah Olbrantz) moves in. Rita–also a poet, and, as Flo observed, not exactly lacking in booty–wants to be friends with her neighbors. Joanne is physically and verbally hostile. After all, this is her neighborhood. Flo helps Rita move in, sings an Ike and Tina Turner duet with her, and deems her to be a good person. Joanne has some confrontations with her mother (Almeria Campbell), a career-minded legal professional who accepts the changes on their block. Joanne re-reads the letters she received from her absent father (Herbert Newsome) over the years. It turns out that she and Rita have much more in common than they thought. They even have the power to work together through poetry and other tactics to make the neighborhood a better place. Ras Moshe and Kenjah provide drum and sax accompaniment for this poetic show.
So, why is it that Harlem gentrifying brings up such passionate debate? Is it the Harlem Renaissance, the growth of Jazz, Marcus Garvey, and the Apollo Theater that make Harlem the center of Black culture? Of course, there were earlier flowerings of Black culture in other parts of the U.S. Your reviewer’s Jewish father was born in Harlem and grew up in Washington Heights. But hey, it’s New York, where everything is on such a large scale that it assumes mythical importance.
Phipps and director Ebony Noelle Golden not only dramatize the changes to Upper Manhattan, they include video interviews with people on the street, who are equally polarized. The result is rich and thought-provoking.