Some years ago, columnist John Kass remarked in the Chicago Tribune that “Daleyville” – the Bean, Michigan Avenue, the nice museums – is just a fraction of Chicago. And in some ways, there’s even two Chicagos: the clean expanse of skyscrapers and streets named after presidents we show to outsiders, and then what some call “Chiraq” – a crumbling city plagued by gangs and violence, where the corner stores bear chains and padlocks. And while Tracey Scott Wilson’s new play Buzzer takes place in New York, one could immediately transplant the action into Chicago, to a neighborhood on the dangerous borderline between the haves and have-nots.
Jackson (Eric Lynch), a young black lawyer out of Harvard, grew up here. His white girlfriend, Suzy (Lee Stark), teaches at a local school. They both consider themselves versed enough to weather out “the hood” – a “hood”, they are convinced, that will not be here very long . The neighborhood is changing fast – Starbucks and yoga centers springing up on corners still frequented by drug dealers and gangs. Jackson and Suzy plan to stick it out until this part of town gets better, but once Jackson’s best friend Don – white, privileged, and out of rehab for the eighth time – comes to live with them, the hairline fractures start appearing. When Suzy is harassed by a black man outside, Jackson and Don fight over how to deal with the problem. Don thinks he knows Suzy from a hazy night years ago, but Jackson loves Suzy. Suzy loves Jackson. And Don is on the outside – but not for long.
The buzzers in the affluent apartment building are broken – if the residents want to communicate with those outside, they have to go outside themselves. Most of the time, they decide that it’s easier to stay inside, no matter who might be calling. Don whispers about similar apartments with broken buzzers – places where brutal crimes, including the rape of a young model, have occurred. The buzzers symbolize the remoteness of the apartments, the kind of isolating security that brings the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese to mind. If the apartment’s cappuccino-drinking, laptop-toting residents heard something happening outside, would they go help, or turn the TV up louder?
As well as privilege, Buzzer addresses race – although, as playwright Tracey Scott Wilson lays out, the two are almost inextricable. Wilson recognizes that racial themes can be presented in a way that’s riveting, but also poised and funny. Early on, Jackson and Suzy, who teaches at a local school, joke about the “inspirational white teacher” trope and inner-city poetry slam teams. But as the play evolves, the jokes turn serious. As he itches to pick a fight with the “thug” who harassed Suzy, Jackson confronts how his cultural identity – a black man in a black neighborhood – is still shaping him, and Don and Suzy must confront how Jackson’s “blackness” and their “whiteness” impact (and sometimes distort) the situation.
Sometimes the premise of Buzzer becomes overly obvious: the catchphrase “gentrifiers” is used too often as a cue to the audience that major themes are being discussed. The final tableau dropped jaws across the Owen Theater, but relied on an ensemble that seemed to appear out of nowhere. More of the unnamed neighbors could be added early in the play – the “gentrifiers” could be shown instead of mentioned constantly.
But until the end, Buzzer is a three-person play, and actors Shane Kenyon, Lee Stark, and Eric Lynch are extraordinary as Don, Suzy, and Jackson. Kenyon uses every square inch of the stage – tumbling behind couches and clambering up counters in a performance that’s not only weird and lovable but believable. Suzy gets manic, and Stark doesn’t shy back – hair flying and arms waving, one can feel this woman breaking down. And in Jackson, Lynch’s sensitivity, delivery, and one appearance in a manly tank top may or may not have spawned fangirls in the audience.
With these thrilling performances, Buzzer is a candid and fascinating look at race, affluence, and betrayal. In the small Owen venue, set designer Walt Spangler packs in an urban sprawl of neon signs and graffiti, cut by the bright lights and Ikea furnishings of the apartment. It forces one to think about a question asked from New York to Chicago: can these two worlds ever mix?