R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - BUZZER with Josh Kruger | Theatre Philadelphia
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R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - BUZZER with Josh Kruger

May 30, 2017

Josh and Eric on their Theatre Date

We primarily talk to each other through screens. I’ve brought Josh Kruger with me on my fourth “Theater Date,” a project in which I take people active in city life to plays and then report back about the conversation we have post-show. Josh and I have been friends for years but it occurs to me that, for the most part, we only communicate online. Perhaps this is to be expected, as I work remotely and he works for the City of Philadelphia in social media. But it’s also a bit odd, as we live mere blocks apart.

Either way, it feels apropos that we’re having a rare in-person meeting at Theatre Exile’s production of Buzzer by Tracey Scott Wilson, a play about physical spaces and their inhabitants. The versatile South Philly theater sits squarely in between our two apartments; like so many places in our city it’s easily walkable. On my way to meet him, I pass through that one South Philly block that is always decorated extravagantly for Christmas, past houses bearing signs that read “Hate has no home here” and the Italian restaurant with the singing wait staff. After the play, as we walk and talk, we pass a dog park and a human park and a police station. Having spent 90 minutes in the company of a play that wrestles with gentrification, it’s impossible not to be hyper-aware of our surroundings--how comfortable we feel, how real that comfort feels. Are these neighborhoods authentic or manufactured? Are we supposed to be there? And would we know if we weren’t?

Akeem Davis (Jackson) and Alex Keiper (Suzy) in Buzzer

When Jackson (Akeem Davis) and Suzy (Alex Keiper) move into a recently refurbished loft space in an economically depressed neighborhood at the beginning of Buzzer, we’re quickly informed that their motives are authentic. Jackson grew up in this neighborhood, before renovations, before hope. He struggled to get out and now purchases a condo as an act of reclamation. Suzy, who is white, teaches public school and while she points out that none of their friends will dare visit them in the new apartment, she evinces a level of genuine dedication to the neighborhood (or at least the part that Jackson represents) which mixes intriguingly with her legitimate concerns about her safety.

It’s exciting to consider the position of a black character who is both the success story of a downtrodden area as well as its gentrifier. When Suzy initially rejects the idea of moving into the apartment for fear that the neighborhood is still too rough, Jackson points out that “the gay guys across the hall can stand it” and then quickly adds “I know this area and this life better than you.” It’s an interesting code switch and a convincing claim to multiple forms of authenticity. The question of whether Jackson--or anyone--can successfully straddle two worlds quickly arises.

But after the play is over and we walk through Philadelphia neighborhoods that seem to have escaped massive population and construction overhaul in favor of slow change and diversification, it’s not Jackson’s world we’re talking about. Passing three-story buildings that have been broken up into affordable apartments and single family homes that have been passed down through generations, we find ourselves stuck on Don. Don, Jackson’s white friend from school. Don, a ne’er-do-well scion of a wealthy family who can’t seem to escape the cycle of addiction. Don, who you might think wouldn’t be caught dead in such a bad neighborhood except for the fact that when he was kicked out of his family home, he stayed with Jackson as a teen. Oh, and back in the day, he scored drugs in the apartment that Jackson now owns. It’s Don (Matteo Scammell) on whom Buzzer places the most complex ideas about transformation and belonging.

Akeem Davis (Jackson) and Matteo Scammell (Don) in Buzzer

Josh and I are fascinated by this. Does Don, who comes to live with Jackson and Suzy bearing two trash bags full of belongings, have an authentic claim to this narrative? Or is he gentrifying someone else’s story? Why do we root for him to figure it out or to do the right thing? Why do we watch him struggle with a secret while Jackson silently fumes? And how are we supposed to feel about this?

I try not to intentionally match my theater dates with the content of the play because I think it’s often more interesting to see what conversations arise without my meddling, but it turns out that Josh is a perfect companion for this story. As a government employee, he is always thinking about the stories of this city; his social media account is full of delightful discoveries he’s made on walks. A long-time resident, he has a near-native’s appreciation but mixes it with a newcomer’s awe. Additionally, he frequently finds himself mulling over cultural conflicts, trying to gather information, trying to understand the things that unite us and the things that separate. We frequently talk about instances where an individual or group has taken up too much space or has assumed a narrative that is not rightfully theirs. It’s more than an intellectual fancy; it’s a way of trying to discern what’s happening next.

And so it’s with surprise that we look to Don and a slow-building conflict he has with Suzy to guide our thinking about the play. We wonder if this is intentional, whether the price of change must not be paid by the play’s lone black character but rather by its white ones. We wonder if penance is a part of the cycle of gentrification. And, reflecting on all the anguished questions we have about Jackson, who ultimately ends up paying.

At the end of the evening, our conversation having wandered into a distant suburb of the play’s central story, Josh reminds me of an exchange we had on Twitter late last year. He’d tweeted an innocuous comment about overhearing a South Philly father and son talking about white Christmas trees. As is my wont, I responded with a complete lack of subtly or seriousness, writing “White trees are an abomination. #identitypolitics.” Josh, always more level-headed on social media than I, gamely replied “I’m not sure how to respond.”

As we conclude our evening, standing on a South Philadelphia street as a diverse parade of residents file past us, I ask him if he remembers what I wrote in response. He does. He says, “It was just one word. You wrote ‘APOLOGIZE!’”

“Well, did you?” I ask archly.


Buzzer by Tracey Scott Wilson, directed Matt Pfeiffer, is produced by Theatre Exile. It opened on May 4 and ran through May 28. Find more information at theatreexile.org

R. Eric Thomas is an award-winning playwright and humorist. His most recent play, Time Is On Our Side, was the recipient of two Barrymore Awards including Best New Play and was named a finalist for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. He writes a daily humor column for ELLE.com in which he “reads” the news. In addition to ELLE.com and ELLE magazine, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, W, Man Repeller, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine and more. rericthomas.com