In Andrew Lee Creech’s “Riverwood,” gentrification becomes a character. While it’s not a cast character, and no actor dubbed “gentrification” ever walks on stage, its looming presence affects every choice and every action throughout Creech’s play. It forces audiences to subtly wrestle with gentrification threatening to rob a community of its agency and identity. But in this bout of community versus gentrification, the individuals caught in the middle get overshadowed and eventually lost.
“Riverwood,” co-produced by LANGSTON and Seattle Public Theater, takes place outside the Riverwood Apartments and follows the lives of five people directly affected by the building being sold to condo developers. High schoolers Tel and Crunch dream of making it out of their neighborhood — Tel, as a future Grammy-winning rapper alongside his best friend Crunch, and Crunch contemplating college as his next step. Building super Lenard dreams of winning the lotto; community warrior Dédra dreams of keeping the neighborhood in the hands of its community; and Miss Penny, the building manager who felt the full impact of the early 2000s recession, tries to keep both of their heads on straight.
The play’s strength lies in the joy in the relationships between the characters and the rapport the actors have with each other. In one scene, Jordan-Michael Whidbey’s Crunch and Brandon Jones Mooney’s Tel goofily slap fight, which results in Mooney locking Whidbey in a full nelson, gently shushing Whidbey as he pats his momentarily incapacitated best friend on the head. Another sees Rebecca M. Davis’ Miss Penny question Ayo Tushinde’s Dédra’s protest sign that simply reads, “DIE,” since it doesn’t say what she actually wants. Tushinde simply responds, “Oh, for them to die.” Tushinde and Dimitri Woods (Lenard) get a few simple moments of happiness dancing together. Everyone is vibrant in their own respects, but the story then struggles when it attempts to take a deeper dive into the effects of gentrification.
In many cases I wonder how the script would play in different directorial hands. Shermona Mitchell’s direction often has some of the most emotional speeches said directly toward the audience. It’s not a bad impulse, especially in a space with acoustics like LANGSTON’s, but the actors wind up losing that great connection with each other. They’re no longer speaking to each other, just to the audience. The hard thing about an audience as a scene partner is that there’s not the same give-and-take as another actor, which left some of these emotional speeches feeling rushed and disconnected.
One major example is a scene between Mooney and Whidbey where Tel finds Crunch’s secret art notebook and opens it to see a tribute to a victim killed by the police. It’s a dramatic tone shift as Mooney’s Tel tells the audience that, if a cop pulled a gun on him, he’d pull the barrel to his head and say, “I wish you would.” It’s a truly haunting speech. But it also disconnects from the scene, becoming its own moment with the audience that feels disjointed from the overall emotional journey of these characters.
Part of that may also be a result of Mitchell’s pacing in general. Even if you remove the uneven delivery of working with an audience as a scene partner, the direction seemed to be in a hurry to get to the end of the play. To keep the momentum, Mitchell has the actors from the next scene enter as the actors from the last exit. With the lights never really coming down and there being no transition music, the result is a very fluid feel. On one level, it makes sense: Lex Marcos provides a simple, static set of some benches one might find at an apartment building’s outdoor seating area, so there’s no need for furniture to move during scene changes. Why pause? Keep it moving.
But perhaps an unintended consequence is that scenes get off to muddy starts and end without moments fully concluding before the next begin. One scene has Davis and Tushinde walk on while Whidbey and Mooney walk off. They interact with each other as if it were a continuation of the last scene, only to have Tushinde and Davis sit down and be at the end of a round of the card game Speed. It’s not necessarily a problem until you get to places like Woods’ Lenard, drunk and fresh off making a massive mistake, who, at scene’s end, decides to throw his bottle of alcohol away. A decision point for Lenard, lost in the wash of these fluid scenes.
And that’s where we come back to gentrification as a character. Bearing down on this community is the loss of the Riverwood Apartments. It’s easy to understand academically that, because of this loss, each person is making choices they might not have made if gentrification weren’t an issue. A choice made under pressure may result in jail time for one person or the opening of their own business for another. Tel and Crunch’s whole friendship falls apart because of the gentrification of the area. But in how this plays out on stage, the emotional connection to their choices gets lost.
Somehow, almost inexplicably, we wind up at the end of this play, with most problems seeming to resolve either during nonverbal scenes or offstage entirely. It’s great to wind up in a place of hope for the community, a sense that this group will persevere. But within this group are individuals with stories, hopes and dreams that feel upstaged by their offstage sixth cast member.