Progress or destruction? Gentrification issues unite Big Apple and Big Easy
Editor's note: “Brothers from the Bottom” -- a New Orleans-set play focused on post-Katrina gentrification that premiered at the Brooklyn Billie Holiday Theatre in New York this past March -- comes to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts' Lupin Hall June 5-28. As NOLA awaits the arrival of the production, we rerun this article published in March 2015, at the time of the show's original debut in New York.
Gentrification. It’s a word loaded with controversy, no matter which side of the issue you might be on. From Bywater to Brooklyn, it's a topic that can swiftly shift from reasonable to rancorous with families and friendships torn apart by differing, anger-filled opinions.
It’s an issue ably captured by New Orleans-born award-winning actor and writer/director Jackie Alexander in his play Brothers from the Bottom, the story of an African-American family in a post-Katrina neighborhood threatened with gentrification, now playing at The Brooklyn Music School Playhouse. It stars Tony-award-winning Juilliard-trained New Orleans actor Wendell Pierce.
Alexander, who was born in New Orleans and grew up in Gonzalez, is the Artistic Director of The Billie Holiday Theatre in New York. He was appointed to that position in 2013, following a 2010-2011 BHT season entirely devoted to his works. In that season Alexander was commissioned to write three new plays, one of which was Brothers from the Bottom; he is the only playwright in the 42-year history of the theater to receive such an honor. Because the Billie Holiday Theatre is undergoing extensive renovations in New York, the company is spending this season in residence at The Brooklyn Music School Playhouse.
Alexander has reworked some of the original storyline from the play’s first performances. This one-month-only re-staging features original music by New Orleans musicians Edward Anderson and Darrell Lavigne. In addition to the always-busy Pierce, the cast also features two-time Emmy Award winner Kevin Mambo, who played the title role in Fela! on Broadway.
Alexander, who returns to New Orleans often to visit with his extended family here, says it was at one of those reunions that he encountered the rising tensions brought on by the prospect of imminent neighborhood gentrification.
“It really came up when I was visiting family at Christmas 2008,” he recalls. “We were having conversations about what was happening in New Orleans. People started taking sides. You could see the room divide into two, and each side stopped listening to the other. It kind of got heated.”
While these conversations were happening in New Orleans, Alexander was struck by the similarity of what was going on in Brooklyn. Perhaps the reasons for gentrification were different. But the resentment and the anger were the same.
“In many ways both sides had valid points,” he says. “But there was no middle ground.”
In Brothers from the Bottom, Alexander uses a family dispute in a made-up New Orleans neighborhood called the Bottom as the basis for his story of how two brothers deal with the issue. One brother, played by Pierce, had returned to his family home post-Katrina and worked diligently to help others who did the same. The other, played by Wendell Franklin, had left hoping never to return. Their very different lives set up the tension for their opposing points of view.
“There are no villains in the play,” Alexander says. “Just like my family where everyone in the room loved New Orleans, it was a case that they stopped listening to one another.”
This past weekend, NolaVie Editor Renee Peck and I went to Brooklyn to “show the flag” for New Orleans during the play's opening weekend. We came away impressed by the way the subject is tackled as well as the quality of the writing, staging and cast.
Pierce is available only for four weekends, so Brothers from the Bottom has a month-long run, closing on March 29. We encourage anyone traveling to the Big Apple this month to cross the bridge to Brooklyn to see it. Don’t expect a grand theater with plush seats. The Brooklyn Music School Playhouse is a bit funkier than that, with rows of plain wooden seats in a wonderful vintage performance space. But the polished ensemble, intriguing narrative and, most of all, authenticity of the New Orleans place and people presented on stage here make the trek well worth it.
What’s next for Alexander et al? They are making every effort to bring the play to New Orleans. Given the enthusiastic standing ovation by the non-New Orleanian audience at last weekend’s performance, we can only imagine the enthusiasm it would receive from the home crowd.
Brothers from the Bottom
- What: A play about gentrification set in New Orleans by Jackie Alexander, starring Wendell Pierce with original music by Edward Anderson and Darrell Lavigne
- Where: The Brooklyn Music School Playhouse, 126 Saint Felix St. (between Hanson and Lafayette) Brooklyn, NY
- When: Weekends until March 29; Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p m.
- Tickets: General admission $20-$30. Buy online at www.thebillieholiday.org
- For more information, go to www.jackiealexanderproductions.com
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]