Politics onstage without a human, emotional core can turn into a boring polemic. Marry the two, however, and you can lead the audience into territory they wouldn't normally tread. Case in point, Tracey Scott Wilson's Buzzer, which is receiving its world premiere at the Pillsbury House Theatre. Wilson's script deals with issues swirling around race and gentrification head-on, but it truly makes its case with the thorny, complex relationships among the three characters.
Buzzer, a co-commission with the Guthrie Theater, follows Jackson (Namir Smallwood), a young black man who was able to leave behind his impoverished neighborhood for prep school, the Ivy League, and a top position in a law firm. At the beginning of the play, he jumps at the chance to move back to the old hood, which is now in the early stages of revitalization. He brings his white girlfriend, Suzy (Sara A. Richardson), along with him. She isn't as enthusiastic but is sold on the place.
There's an extra bit of baggage however. Jackson's best friend, Don (Hugh Kennedy), is at the end of his rope and desperately needs a place to stay. Jackson says yes, though the history among the three is complex to say the least. It sounds like a mismatched sitcom, except there's a constant sense of unease. Some of that comes from the neighborhood, which may not be as far along in its redevelopment as Jackson has let on. There are reports of violence and murder from nearby blocks. Closer to home, a group of unemployed black men have taken to harassing Suzy on her way to and from the apartment.
And there's tension inside as well. Jackson is obsessed with work, constantly checking his email during the middle of conversations and sounding increasingly distracted, and Suzy finds she can let her guard down only when she's alone with Don. One thing leads to another, and we're suddenly playing a version of Betrayal amid the mean streets of a nameless American city.
Wilson, along with the actors and director Marion McClinton, pushes the story into uncomfortable territory, dealing both with our society's relationship with race and the relationship at the center of the story. Though the action exists almost entirely in the apartment, there is turmoil about what's going on outside that intensifies throughout the play. The occasional sounds from the street—the thudding bass of a passing car that drowns out all conversation, the backfire of a car that causes Suzy to jump—adds a layer to this. All of which brings up plenty of questions, to which Wilson, thankfully, doesn't provide easy answers. Issues of authenticity and entitlement run throughout the script, which gives the actors plenty of meaty moments.
At the beginning, both Smallwood and Richardson seem too stiff for their roles, but that reflects well on the characters. Jackson admits to having built up walls between himself and the different worlds he has walked in, at first trying to survive in his neighborhood and then in a different hostile world, where he had to constantly prove that he was not just as good as everyone else but better, because of his skin color. In the end, the character can only find his true self when angry.
Richardson's character begins to thaw when alone with Don, letting down her own barriers with someone she obviously cares for, but who has also disappointed her time and time again. That leaves Kennedy. His character is the most open from the beginning, giving him a chance to worm his way into our minds. As the play unfolds, the character's own deep hurts—from the years he lost as an addict to a simmering resentment over his father's love of Jackson over him—wear away at his likeable exterior. Kennedy plays it expertly, slowly broadening the character until we see all of his sides, and provides a sense of what brought him to this point in his life—a vagabond existence contained in a pair of half-filled plastic garbage bags.
Director McClinton gives the actors the space they need to bring out these characters and lets the different moods of Wilson's script play out honestly. Buzzer is at times hilarious and tragic, sometimes both at the same time. Balancing that is always a tough task, but the company does a good job of making it work and letting the issues rise naturally to the surface, instead of hitting us over the head with a two-by-four.