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Entertainment » New Play Boldly Challenges Gentrification, Class and Race Issues

New Play Boldly Challenges Gentrification, Class and Race Issues

For long-time residents of many metropolitan cities, such as San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York City, gentrification is a controversial reality that challenges assumptions and views on class, race, displacement and the preservation of culture.

In the new theatrical production premiering today (May 18) in New York City at the Times Square Arts Center, Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale, writers-performers Jaylene Clark, Hollis Heath, Janelle Heatley and Chyann Sapp delve into the complex issues of Harlem gentrification through a fusion of spoken-word poetry, music and theatre.

Rolling out spoke with Clark, who also directs the piece, about honoring the Harlem Renaissance amid a shifting racial landscape, why gentrification is, in essence, an economic issue and the need for financial self-empowerment. –souleo

Do you perceive such a divide between wealthy and poorer blacks when it comes to gentrification?

Absolutely. As the character Bridget says in the show, “Gentrification is not just a black-white thing. It’s a class thing. It’s a money thing.” It is easy for many black Harlemites to perceive gentrification as being the result of what happens when “white people come Uptown.” However, gentrification encompasses all people who are of the middle to upper class who move into the neighborhood. It is very possible to have a situation where a black family has to move out of their home because the rent has increased, only to be replaced by another black family with a higher income.

In the past, many didn’t seize the opportunity to purchase Harlem properties at below-market prices and now regret it. Is the key to empowerment financial literacy?

In the show, the character Toni has a grandmother who speaks about this very issue.  It is imperative that Harlemites be empowered with financial literacy. There is so much information available, especially on the Internet, but people must make the effort to be informed. There is an organization called Tenants & Neighbors that is actually providing information to residents in the New York State area on matters such as rent regulation. These types of groups are vital to fighting against displacement.

How do you think we can achieve a balance between honoring Harlem’s black cultural history while recognizing the growing influence of other races?

Due to gentrification, there are numerous races and cultures in Harlem, bu,t if these various groups come together under the idea of creating an artistic boom in this neighborhood, they could not only honor the rich culture and history of the Harlem Renaissance, but also create an artistic environment that will be talked about in years to come.

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  1. Hollis H. on May 18, 2011 at 7:03 pm

     YESSS! Thanks for this lovely article.

  2. Jamal_hinnant on May 18, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    I’ve seen the production opening night- and have already committed to seeing it again. Its a must see on Broadway. The plot and character shifts are delivered smoothly. I’m sure this play will have a great run on the major stage.  

  3. Jo C. on May 19, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    This is a must see production that addresses change in every urban community.  This play was centered on gentrification in Harlem but it is happening in other communities in New York City as well as Philadelphia, Washington D.C., etc.  It’s not simply a matter of race, but as the play addresses economics.  This is the type of production that brings about discussion of the culture and the time we are living in.  I absolutely loved it and highly recommend that everyone should see it.

  4. nyHarlem on May 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I saw the performance Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale and it was a real hands on production.  Folks from all neighborhoods should come to see this show . 

  5. Harlem KW Project on May 20, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Thank you Souleo for a wonderful article!

  6. Uncle Chuck on May 22, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    “…empowered with financial literacy…but people must make the effort
    to be informed.”

    With billions being spent on American “education” why isn’t financial literacy being taught in our schools? Financial literacy is much more revelant to students than the subjects being taught just to pass a test so the school system can get more money to teach the same irrevelant subjects.