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.

To purchase tickets and for more information, please visit

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