Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Karen Rodriguez and Rashaad Hall | Austin D. Oie
By Bec Willett
“We Lost Our Lease” is emblazoned across the storefront of one of my favorite thrift stores. As I pass it on my way to The Den to see Isaac Gomez’s THE DISPLACED I can’t help but relive my experiences there. This is – or was – a pre-hipster thrift store: where the prices were determined by who was on the counter that day, rummaging was required, and mysterious smells rose out of boxes only accessible by parkour. Its windows now masked in papers advertising percentages off, the sun-worn name is the wrong kind of vintage in juxtaposition to the new storefronts with shiny signage and logos in primary retro colors. The store’s closure may be an unhappy accident but it also serves as potent proof of the relevancy of gentrification that THE DISPLACED addresses.
“I’m a different kind of Mexican,” Marísa explains to her black boyfriend, Lev. Marísa (Karen Rodriguez) and Lev (Rashaad Hall) have just moved into a new apartment in Pilsen – one that became available due to a messy foreclosure. As they unpack, they argue as to whether they, as people of color who have money, are part of the process of gentrification or not. It’s not the first or only argument the couple has – there are many, too many. If you’ve ever been in a long-term relationship, there are many moments here that are sure to evoke a humorous discomfort of recognition. Just like real relationships, resolutions are attempted with various results – yet unlike reality, the play and performances struggle to allow the tension in their relationship to build, with every cycle of argument returning to zero rather than adding to the whole. While the issues they discuss — the disparate experiences of race and class — are in and of themselves moving in their relevance and expression, as an audience member it leaves you wondering just where this ship is heading.
Almost parallel to this relationship-focused drama are the strange, horror-genre happenings occurring around them: lights flickering abnormally, Alexa (the machine) misbehaving, strange sounds from beyond the walls. From a technical and design standpoint, the precision of execution of this is impressive – especially from the stage management team led by Rukaya Ilah. The meticulousness of Arnel Sanciacno’s apartment set leaves us in no doubt that this is a real home loved and lost at the bank’s behest. These spooky events in this real apartment repeatedly invoke themselves at points of intensity in the relationship – apexes of fights or intimacy, suddenly changing the focus of the characters. While there’s an impressive gymnastic mastery performed here by director, actors and technical team in navigating these vacillations, after the second time this alienating device starts to wear thin. By the fourth and fifth time, it’s not just expected, it becomes a gimmick, revealing the struggle the play has in knitting together the two stories and their genres, and in turn the opportunity to really drive home the questions it’s striving to pose – at least in the first half of the play.
Despite this meandering beginning, it’s when things start to go really awry with the house and the relationship drama gets out of the way that THE DISPLACED is able to fully unleash – and it’s glorious. Slightly campy, violent, and gory, we finally have the opportunity to see what the actors (especially Rodriguez) can really do. The thing is, I can’t tell you anything about that because: spoilers. What I will tell you that the thrill of the event and execution is worth the wait, it’s just one I wish could have started sooner.
THE DISPLACED pokes around at millennials’ attitude towards race and gentrification, and it asks a lot of questions – some more formed than others. It’s certainly an experience that isn’t likely to leave me quickly. It most certainly hasn’t as I drink my drink in The Den’s now swanky and tastefully vintage bar. It’s an environment I’ve enjoyed before but as I dwell on the play and the thrift store sign just half a block from here, the question that has often simmered in my mind has now boiled to the surface: at what cost?