Neighborhoods in transition, particularly those moving up the scale, make for good drama. From Bruce Norris’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winner “Clybourne Park” to George Bernard Shaw’s 1892 drama “Widower’s Houses,” gentrification resonates.
In “Broken Fences,” set in Chicago and now playing at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, playwright Steven Simoncic weaves a story of newcomers to East Garfield Park and the hardships they inadvertently foist on their neighbors, even as they are trying their best to be neighborly.
Directed by Ann Filmer and Ilesa Duncan, “Broken Fences” is a powerful drama filled with equal parts humor and heartbreak.
April (Kirsten D’Aurelio) and Czar (Scott Allen Luke) are an upwardly mobile couple who have purchased a large home in a changing neighborhood that’s a mixed bag of upstanding, hard-working folk and crack addicts.
Judging by the nonplussed side-eye April and Czar get from the African-American couple living the next house over, they are among the first whites to venture into this transitional neighborhood. Hoody, a Jiffy Lube mechanic, and D, an aspiring hair stylist, aren’t quite sure what to make of April and Czar, or of Czar’s job as a marketing executive who current peddles a “cheese product,” known as the snack preference of young minorities.
What Hoody (Daniel J. Bryant) and D (Krenee A. Tolson) do know is that the property tax assessment on their home, the place that Hoody’s family has owned for generations, has more than tripled in the past year and that they are in very real danger of being evicted.
Also key to the neighborhood is Marz (Eric Lynch), an entrepreneur who supplements his job at the new Starbucks as a fitness boot camp instructor targeting rich, white folks from suburbia.
Dropping in from Schaumburg are April and Czar’s best friends Spence (Bradford R. Lund) and Barb (Tasha Anne James ), a prototypical upper middle class duo. Finally, there’s the local delinquent Esto (Ryan Czerwonko), an Eminem/Jesse Pinkman-wannabe who April and Czar meet as he’s in the process of stealing their dishes.
Simoncic’s dialogue accomplishes something that’s rare in theater: He presents urgent, multi-layered socio-economic issues in a manner that’s intensely entertaining. “Broken Fences” is play that tackles big themes—home, community, gentrification, racism, displacement—without ever losing its narrative drive. It’s meaningful storytelling at its finest.
D’Aurelio nails the obliviously patronizing attitude of a do-gooder certain that her choices are superior to the suburban sellouts. James’ Barb is appropriately ticked off at her friend’s self-righteousness. “Just because I’m white and live in the suburbs doesn’t make me a less authentic human being,” Barb explodes, and you can practically smell April’s ingrained disagreement on that point.
Lynch is a comic scene-stealer as a young man whose loathing for Starbucks and its high maintenance beverages doesn’t stop him from cashing in on the rising demand for triple shot-half caf-180 degree-soy milk-caramel Frappucinos.
But the heart of piece beats in Bryant’s Hoody, whose rock-solid core of true community values would make him an ideal neighbor in Schaumburg, East Garfield Park or anywhere else.
Simoncic has punctuated “Broken Fences” with a series of monologues on the pain of invisibility, something all of these characters struggle with. Scenic designer Dustin Pettigrew’s realistic set captures East Garfield Park right down to the chain link fences and the shoes inexplicably hung from power lines.
Honest, heart-breaking, funny and compelling, “Broken Fences” marks the first genuine must-see of the fall season.