Pondering Gentrification

Four Oakland theater companies create a theater piece, “Overnight.”


Reggie Wilkins plays Upper.

Photo by Lilli Fore

When the formerly nomadic theater company Ragged Wing Ensemble opened its new multidisciplinary arts space the Flight Deck in downtown Oakland three years ago, it invited several other itinerant arts organizations to call the venue home. Now, for the first time, the resident companies of the Flight Deck are collaborating on the creation of a new theater piece.

Tackling tough questions of gentrification and the changing face of Oakland, Overnight consists of three short plays examining the same event—a high-rise building springing up overnight where there had been a parking lot before—from three different angles in separate shorts created by Ragged Wing, Theatre Aluminous, and the Lower Bottom Playaz. Tying the evening together are interstitial dance and movement pieces performed by Gritty City Repertory Youth Theatre, choreographed by Gritty City founder Lindsay Krumbein with music by Oakland’s Kev Choice.

“I designed the structure so that we could all create something together collaboratively around something that’s really important to all of us, which is the development of our city,” said Ragged Wing cofounder and executive director Anna Shneiderman.

The first section is by Theatre Aluminous, written by Ragged Wing core artist Sango Tajima and directed by Aluminous artistic director Michael French.

“It starts with a very simple conflict,” Tajima said. “He wants to paint the wall of the building, the graffiti artist, and she’s the janitor or the caretaker of the building, and she’s trying to stop him from doing that obviously, because she’s going to lose her job.”

“I’d say it’s kind of the most micro play out of all of them,” Tajima said. “And then the second play is a little more macro because it’s focusing on the present situation of displacement in Oakland and how modern day characters are dealing with that. And then the super macro is the Lower Bottom’s play, which is in a world where God and his apostle are living on a park bench. So it’s a nice little progression.”

The Ragged Wing piece, written and directed by artistic associate Addie Ulrey, focuses on a small group of friends meeting at a coffee shop across the street from the building.

“I started out thinking of my piece as sort of the piece about transplants, and about the question of how you earn the right to be in a place, and also how you grapple with the possibility that your presence, the simple fact of your presence, is part of the problem,” Ulrey said.

The final section is the Lower Bottom Playaz one written and directed by founder Ayodele Nzinga, which involves God wandering the streets as an older black man with his apostle, and their discussion with a young white woman about how best to save the world.

“In our section, I’m taking the liberty of creating a piece of magical realism to be able to deal with some supersized problems,” Nzinga said. “The day after the election, in sitting with allies, people were so unnerved about an America that is very, very familiar to me. It begged the question for me: Well, now that your eyes are opened, what will you do? So I wanted to create a situation in which we get to examine the question of perhaps what it takes for us to go forward in a collective way if we’re not all ‘all in.’”

“One thing that’s really interesting is in the Bay Area, on the national scale most people kind of agree,” said Shneiderman. “There’s a lot of people agreeing on being against Trump, for example. But when you get into an issue like development in a city like Oakland, it’s so much more divisive. There’s a lot of different opinions about what should happen and what is the best way to do it and what is actually fair and just and what is possible.”

Overnight, March 31-April 22, The Flight Deck, 1540 Broadway, Oakland, RaggedWing.org.


Published online on March 27, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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