Dallas — “Where do the people go when you move them out?” Guinea Bennett-Price, co-artistic director for Soul Rep Theatre Company, thinks this is the question everyone should ask when considering the impact of gentrification on a community. It is the subject tackled by Katori Hall in Hurt Village, the last of her four Memphis Plays, a collection of stories set in her home city of Memphis, Tennessee. (Another of The Memphis Plays collection, The Mountaintop, was part of the 2015 Dallas Theater Center season.)
Bennett-Price sees now as the perfect time for this regional premiere of Hall’s work because of the gentrification happening in Dallas, more specifically, surrounding the theatre’s home.
“Being that the play centers around a family going through gentrification, it is literally happening in the South Dallas community,” Bennett-Price says. “It is arriving sooner than people of that community believe. Gentrification is happening all over the country. People have a certain perception of blacks. Soul Rep tries to grab plays which help audiences see us through a different lens.”
That perception of blacks is what prompted Fair Park and the City of Dallas to gain possession of homes and land from black people under eminent domain during the 1960s. Market research had indicated having black people so visibly close to the fairgrounds frightened white fairgoers. What are now fenced parking lots on fair grounds were once residences.
“Other communities have experienced gentrification but not in the same way,” Bennett-Price says. “Katori Hall’s play sheds light on that raw truth by showing how black people are often bulldozed over without a second thought.”
Soul Rep produces in the South Dallas Cultural Center which is located behind Fair Park. Both properties are part of the Dallas gentrification map, Census Tract No. 203, categorized as “gentrified.”
Gentrification differs from revitalization in that it results in the displacement of people, many of whom are from families who have lived in their community for generations. The compensation that might be offered to those who own is rarely enough for them to purchase elsewhere. For those who rent, in particular residents of housing projects, the effects are often devastating.
Katori Hall’s play tells the story of such a family facing displacement from their home, a Memphis housing project named Hurt Village. The story is introduced through the lens of a 13-year old girl, Cookie. We meet her mother, grandmother, father, and memorable neighborhood characters. While Hall’s characters are fictional, the greater event and place are not.
In reality, Hurt Village was one of eight housing projects in Memphis. It had been named after a local physician and philanthropist, Dr. William H. Hurt. Originally it was built to attract more white people into that area of Memphis, which was trending black. But then Dr. Martin L. King was assassinated less than two miles away at the Lorraine Hotel (now The National Civil Rights Museum) and most of the white people moved away with businesses following them.
The Hurt Village housing project was razed and an upscale community, Uptown, was built in its place. Residents were given vouchers for other temporary Section 8 housing while Uptown was being built. They were told they could return if they secured employment at the right income level. The new pricing was set above what the displaced residents could possibly have handled, thus they could not return to what had been their community.
Much ado has been made about the language of the play. It is gritty, but if one is going to tell a story, the language of that story must be authentic to the characters and situation. Even so, assistant director Tonya Holloway acknowledges that for some in their audiences a hard language play will be a new experience.
In a moment of despair and frustration one of the characters bemoans the fate of black girls, speaking of her own daughter in saying “Sometimes I look at her, wish she ain’t never been born. Not because I don’t love her but because I love her with all my heart.”
Director Jemal McNeil, sees the poetry and specificity of Hall’s language in Hurt Village. Gentrification is a story he knows from personal experience.
“I was a part of a neighborhood in Los Angeles that was gentrified. I saw the displacement of people of color, who in this case were Asian, Latin and black, and people who were not able to afford it,” McNeil says. “At first, it was nice. Some elements were being cleared up. But as time went on, my experience changed. More than once new residents called the police on me in front of my own house and the police didn’t believe I lived there. Gentrification means the neighborhood is safe when you don’t see me. Coyotes are welcome, raccoons, and possums—everything but me. That’s very unfortunate.”
“It takes a village to raise a family but our villages are long gone and everyone is hurting,” he continues. “Can we resurrect our fallen villages or have we sold our drums for rented slums? We are a long way from Africa but deep inside is a space where the sound of those drums remain, and we respond. That’s spiritual. The beautiful thing about our people is that no matter how much we are being held down, we still rise. There is still that space in our community that is a village. I am speaking to the dysfunctional village that is still there. We have power. We just think we don’t.”
Bennett-Price had planned to direct the piece, after being sidelined by an injury, she immediately thought of McNeil, who she had known since they were students at Howard University. Fortunately, he was available. McNeil is a busy actor, director and acting coach who has been creatively engaged since age 6. Some of his coaching credits include Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Kendrick Lamar. So while he was able to make space for this play, there was no wiggle room in his schedule. With Tonya Holloway as his assistant director, the team was formed.
McNeil sees his job as a director to guide the beautiful journey, listen, pinpoint, create, inspire, and empower the actors. When asked about how his experience as an actor helps shape his directing.
“It helps me not be tyrannical, to make this more of a collaborative process in character development,” he says. “I have more compassion and desire to make sure the actor is equally a part of the process.”
McNeil was effusive about this opportunity to work with the talent in the area and how much growth is happening in Dallas.
“I love Soul Rep Theatre Company. It is the type of artist space I look for so many times. It is definitely a place that I can easily consider this one of my home bases. Soul Rep and its artists are truly a village.”
Hurt Village is currently in development as a film. The play runs May 2-4 and May 9-11 at the SDCC. There will be talkbacks following Saturday matinee performances.