GROUP: Power Street Theater Company
ATTENDED: Fri., Sept. 7, 7 p.m., Taller Puertorriqueno
CLOSES: Sat., Sept. 14
BRIEF SELF-DESCRIPTION: "When the local university begins buying up houses in an integrated black and Latino community, residents are pushed out and the fabric of the community is ripped."
WE THINK: Minorityland has the deck stacked against it when it comes to attracting a share of the Fringe mass audience. First, it's up at Taller Puertorriqueno at Fifth around Lehigh, fairly far from the Fringe's Center City critical mass. Second, it's Power Street's first production ever, which in my experience means a high probability of amateur acting. Third, it is very pointedly an issue play, on the topic of gentrification, specifically in a neighborhood bordering an unnamed university in North Philadelphia, which, if this one white lady's preconceptions can be extrapolated to the Fringe's largely white audience, didn't sound like a super fun night. It's also a new play by a young playwright, Erlina Ortiz, and young playwrights are not a group known for subtlety. Fourth, the description of the play is pretty vague, which leaves possibilities wide open for how these issues might be interpreted. I was kind of being a dick in my head about the potential for a night of mediocre spoken-word poetry as I parked near Fairhill Square.
As the lights went down, the play began with a spoken-word poetry intro: God dammit, I thought. But it quickly became clear that I was dumb to judge this play before I'd seen it, and I that had in fact judged it wrong. Minorityland was really good, and I strongly recommend catching it before it closes.
The story is of an elderly Latina woman, Mama Julia, who serves as surrogate grandmother to mixed-race siblings Deb (who looks white) and Otis (who looks black) and Otis' best friend George (a first-generation Asian immigrant). Because property taxes have raised the rent on her house, the play begins as two white-appearing college students move in to sublet rooms from her. She's happy to mother another couple of young people, but Otis resents their presence both specifically and generally, and issues of race, privilege and intention bounce around throughout the play's two hours as it becomes clear that the neighborhood is going to be entirely torn down to make way for formal student housing.
What was so interesting to watch was that Ortiz seems to have a handle on how to make every character feel real and sympathetic, and their failings understandable: The college students' naivete about what their presence in Mama Julia's house means, Otis' angry simplification of complicated societal problems in reaction to his home being threatened. No character ever feels like a straw man or a mouthpiece, or like he or she is being completely unreasonable, and that's an impressive thing for such a young playwright to do with such a complicated topic.
It's also well-acted, and even funny -- it was interesting to watch how the audience, which was pretty evenly racially divided, reacted to certain punch lines. One that made reference to the similarity of one character's name to Sazon brand seasoning, killed immediately with the Latino portion of the audience and killed after about a two-second delay with the rest of the audience.
Anyway, what else can I tell you? Go check this play out, and keep an eye on Power Street.
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