A play about gentrification? Sounds like an outing for LA Eastsiders! We made our way across town to see if the play would live up to the hype. Did it? Read on…
First, a short summary of the play from the Kirk Douglas Theater website:
OBIE Award-winning solo artist Danny Hoch returns to Center Theatre Group with his riveting new work, Taking Over, a show that brings to vivid life the residents of his Brooklyn neighborhood.
In rapidly changing Williamsburg, the melting pot is boiling over with strained ethnic relations and economic tensions—and the threat of gentrification, which threatens to crush the city’s diversity. Hoch masterfully depicts this community in transition with compassionate and hilarious results.
Read more at the Danny Hoch website. Taking Over ends February 22, that’s Sunday! Oh, and don’t bother watching the opening night video clip on the Kirk Douglas website, lame.
Reviews below, more coming tomorrow…
Browne/ The Bus Bench:
The Bus Bench went to see “Taking Over” with LA Eastside.
The first thing The Bus Bench did was get on the bus, since that’s what we do. We ride the bus and stuff. We got on the 333 that goes from the Eastside of LA to the Westside and ends at the Pacific Ocean. On the way there we ran into some kids having conversations about the bus. One kid said, “The bus is fun, the first few times and then it gets kind of old,” and the other kid said, “Why? This is exciting!!”
Then a little 55 year old “exciting” lady got on and inserted herself into them physically by sitting in a seat that they had left empty to give them the kind of space people in LA are used to having and then into their conversation on their observations of the stuffed tigers being sold at Venice and Melrose.
“There are some fake ones, but those fancy ones; those fancy tigers are real, but they are stuffed. You can stuff real things and put them on display in California,” said the “exciting” lady in a little bitty childlike voice.
We all just stared. We were half amused and half hoping that her “exciting” volume wouldn’t be turned up even louder by a comment or a stare or some other action that turns up “exciting” people.
We got off the bus. I assumed the “exciting” lady was going to the ocean.
My first thought when I got to Culver City is that it wasn’t nearly as trashy as I had remembered it being in 80s and 90s. I went to Culver City once when I was 13. I saw a homeless white guy. He was asking for change. I gave him some change and then he went on to tell me about how all the black people from Inglewood were ruining Culver City. He then asked me was I from Inglewood. I decided I didn’t like Culver City and I would never go back to Culver City, but almost twenty years later I was back.
As we walked up the street I saw lots of African-Americans. I thought maybe Culver City had changed, though I didn’t see any Latinos, so maybe it hadn’t changed.
We finally made it to the Kirk Douglas Theatre, but the box office wasn’t open yet.
Across the street from the theater the Pan African Film Festival was going on. It was filled with black yuppies. I know this because they looked at me funny and were a bit snarky when I asked questions, like I shouldn’t be there, sort of like how people treat me in downtown LA. People who share my ethnic background size me up as a freak right away. They don’t have to worry about people thinking that they are racist. Being classist and intolerant seems to be completely socially acceptable.
I guess sometimes it is about class.
After making fun of them and their bourgie ways we decided to get pizza.
We at The Bus Bench are pizza connoisseurs, so we decided to try to find a slice. As we walked the street we found it very pedestrian friendly and noticed while they had a lot of stores and restaurants, quite of few of them were closed or had going out of business signs. The places that were closed looked like they were from a different era and the places that were open looked different.
The places that were open looked richer or more “high class.”
It sort of looked like the working class white Culver City of old was getting gentrified out by the upper middle class white people of the new Culver City.
We found an open pizza place, a place that seemed to be part of the old Culver City.
I was the only person of color customer. There was a Latino guy and black woman working behind the counter. This was vastly different than our experience at the Two Boot pizza joint in Echo Park. It was interracial couples and multicultural kids’ night when we went to Two Boots.
The owners at the Culver City pizza joint were an older white couple. As they closed up for the night they decided to strike up a conversation with us. And the woman started to ask one of “those” questions. In my head I was like, “Oh noooo.”
You know one of those questions you get asked when you are the only person of color in in a room full of suburban kind of white people, that white person that if they were black or Latino would be called working class, but when you’re white you automatically get bumped up a class, which is why North Torrance is viewed as middle class and Boyle Heights is viewed as working class, though I can’t really see a difference in the either of those two groups socio-economic conditions.
There are two types of questions this person will ask
1. The accusatory questions, “Do you think OJ did it?”—I swear I’m still getting asked that.
2. The bonding question, “There is this jazz musician blah, blah, of course you know him right?”
There is really no proper way to answer these questions. The most horrible thing about the bonding type question is that when it turns out that their assumption is wrong they get mad at you for being wrong about what they assumed about you, even if you tried to help them not make this wrong assumption.
And I always try to help people. I even let people say (and spell) my name wrong to avoid conflict. My name is not Brownie and there is no A in my last name.
So I could tell she was going to ask me if I was going to the Pan African Festival (I guess I got my reason why there were so many African-Americans in Culver City) and I was trying to get out my playbill for the “Taking Over” play because I didn’t want her to ask the question and be embarrassed about being wrong, because I knew she would be embarrassed and then I would be embarrassed for her, because she was really sweet and just trying to be diverse and post-racial, but still this interaction would lead to a 10 minutes wasted of my life of her trying to explain she wasn’t assuming this thing about me just because I was black, but yet she was and I sort of don’t even care.
I mean I do care, but I sort of don’t, not in the bigger scheme of things. I don’t view these kinds of comments as racist, but more like prejudice and I’ve gotten all kinds of questions from a variety of people of all colors.
Unfortunately I couldn’t get the playbill out in time and she asked the question and then she had to do that diarrhea of the mouth “I’m really open” conversation that I have with people on a daily basis.
I don’t know why I don’t make these allowances for yuppies. Maybe I am a reverse classist.
My friend who is Latina says people don’t try talk to her at all. We are still deciding which is worse. Being ignored or people trying to bond with you all day.
I sort of think being ignored is worse.
So The Bus Bench meets up with LA Eastside. I forced alcohol upon them.
The majority of the audience was older white people. I couldn’t help but think that this show about Taking Over wasn’t so much about the show, but the audience.
It was something surreal about a guy born in Queens talking about the gentrification in Williamsburg in Culver City a place that is obviously being gentrified, but no one seems to be talking about it because there is no interesting racial component to Culver City’s gentrification, because classism seems to be more socially acceptable than racism, but its truly the same thing, its just not as interesting visually.
And I couldn’t help but think as I was watching the play and watching the audience and thinking that I wasn’t even born here and I’m not really part of anything that somehow to this performer that we were the stuffed tigers on display at Venice and Melrose.
I thought that this play isn’t about the play, but about this interaction between people and this exoticism of the working class and the poor for the amusement of a bunch of old white rich people and while I liked the play I kind of thought in my head, “Hey you’re part of the problem too.” And I was talking about myself and I was talking about Danny.
I wondered if Danny Hoch was a Puerto Rican or a Dominican with the exact same story without listing a MFA (don’t see one on his bio) or bragging about some academic credential if he would be writing for the Village Voice or have a book deal with Random House and I kind of thought about myself and how I’m able to play both sides owing to just having a little bit more money than the average brown girl and I thought about the little stuffed tiger I have in my own living room.
And then I thought, “How can I get paid to make people perform for me?”
I first read about Danny Hoch’s new play in the Los Angeles Times. His quote, “I feel like a tourist in my own city” resonated with me. It was an articulation of a sentiment I’d been feeling whenever I go back to Echo Park. Take the coffee shop Downbeat Cafe, the staff is nice, the food is good but I get this strange feeling when I go in, it’s like I don’t exist. I’m not one of the ‘beautiful people.’ I don’t look like anyone the folks in there want to know. Taking Over touched on a number of these themes and perspectives in a variety of ways, sometimes the messages were in your face, other times they were more nuanced, but everything I’ve been feeling is in there. My friends and I seemed to be laughing the most during the show. Sometimes others around us looked at us strangely like “You get this?” Yes, I get it completely.
Take for instance, one of his characters who complains about all the new bars opening in his recently gentrified neighborhood of Williamsburg (That’s in one of the New York City Boroughs. I don’t think we Eastsiders should be expected to know this). He’s talking about all the hipsters pouring out at closing hour, drunk, laughing loudly and singing. He asks why the fuck are they singing? It made me think of the first and only time I went to Little Joy in Echo Park.
I was with an out of town friend who was meeting up with another friend from Orange County. We all hooked up at the now defunct Arts in Action Space in MacArthur Park ( I think this was 2004?). We were looking for something to do and the Orange County guy says let’s go to Little Joy. I thought it was strange that he knew about a bar I didn’t know about in Echo Park (I hadn’t quite accepted at that time that parts of Echo Park had become a hipster Disneyland). One of my friends who was with us that night (and is Chican@) and I walked up to the door of Little Joy. The hipster door guy begins to stop us and starts acting like he’s not gonna let us in. I guess we looked too local but not the right kind of “local”. Then our white hipster-ish friends come up behind us, he sees we’re with them and reluctantly lets us pass. That felt so ugly, you have no idea. When I walked in, I couldn’t believe how trashy the place was. I felt so uncomfortable being there, I decided to go sleep in the car while my friends drank (unusual for me, I never pass up a social drinking opportunity).
I was sleeping uncomfortably in the car, when I start hearing all these whoops, screeches and hollers. It’s 2am, closing time. Four drunk hipsters come out of the bar singing, yelling and waking up the residential neighborhood they were walking through. They didn’t seem to give a shit about anyone but themselves. I had this visceral reaction like why the fuck do they get to walk through this working class neighborhood acting like the world is their fucking oyster? (For the record and because I know it’s so important for some people to have all the details, I didn’t stop them to ask them why they were being so obnoxious or why they felt so entitled. Sorry!) I’m sure I wasn’t the only person on the block that night cursing them and asking themselves how these hipsters got to be on top of the world.
In another scene, Hoch plays an older Black woman who is a vital part of the daily fabric of her neighborhood. She’s a babysitter, a town crier, an arbitrator, a one person neighborhood watch and keeper of the peace. Despite this, she’s treated as a nobody when she makes an adventurous foray into the newly opened neighborhood patissiere (French bakery). Instead of feeling conspicuous and standing out as she worried she might, she is shocked to discover she is invisible to the gentrifiers. She does not exist. Hmmm, I can relate.
Towards the end of the show, Hoch reads letters from folks who are offended by the play and feeling defensive about their roles in gentrification. Passages of those letters could have easily been lifted from the comments section of this blog. “Why only focus on the negative? What about the benefits of gentrification? Why are you making ME feel bad?”
After the show, I approached Hoch and thanked him for the performance. I said “At least in Williamsburg, they didn’t steal your name” and he mimed what do you mean? (I guess he’s saving his voice, so he communicates in mime.) I told him “They took our name, the Eastside and applied it to Echo Park and Silver Lake.” He looked surprised and the two theater women next to me looked a little ruffled, as if gentrification could not be happening in OUR city. Funny. This is true. The Bus Bench-ers are my witnesses.
All in all, I thought he did a brilliant job of presenting gentrification in a very personalized way. Oh, and it was cool how he gave the mostly upper class audience the finger and told them to fuck off. I guess that part of the show appealed to my inner chola®.
Part two: more reviews – coming tomorrow.
Check out this review from Raquefella.