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Regional Interests

A Play Exploring Gentrification’s (Literal) Horrors

There’s a lot to unpack in The Displaced.

Quite literally, in fact, as it’s moving day for Marísa (Jordan Maria Don) and Lev (Troy Rockett), who’ve just acquired their starter dream home in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. An interracial artist couple with big aspirations, they’ve landed a classic, brick-walled loft near the Pink line, and they’re excited to be embarking on their new life adventure together.

Or are they?

Like cracks in old plaster, their partnership soon reveals some structural damage. The stress of the move—combined with deeply-rooted suspicion—results in the kind of circular bickering that signals to everyone in the room (except the couple in question!) that this relationship is doomed. In relatively quick succession, Marísa and Lev fight over paint swatches, household decision-making, internalized racism and issues of trust, occasionally punctuating their arguments with fumbling attempts at physical intimacy.

As if that doesn’t create enough tension, every time an “L” train rumbles by the room shakes, small objects fall to the floor, and the lights flicker ominously. And into this uncomfortable atmosphere creeps a horror that threatens not only their equilibrium, but their very existence.

Jordan Maria Don as Marísa and Troy Rockett as Lev in their new home in ‘The Displaced’ by Isaac Gómez. (Adam Tolbert)

Crowded Fire Theater’s West Coast premiere of Isaac Gómez’ spooky two-hander—directed by Mina Morita and Karina Gutiérrez—is the perfect prelude to the approaching Halloween season. Much like the recently released Nia DaCosta film Candyman, and Bennett Fisher’s 2016 haunted Campo Maldito, the play focuses as much on the everyday horrors of gentrification and displacement as it does on jump scares and skillfully-deployed special effects (courtesy of Devon LaBelle). As Marísa and Lev dig into the (sometimes literal) bones of their new apartment, what they find out about the original occupants disquiets them, even as they try to assert to themselves and each other that they really do belong. In this space. Together.

“We said all of this was so we could start running towards each other,” Marísa observes sadly, as they alternate trying to recalibrate their connection and trying to explain away the increasingly weird, possibly supernatural disturbances happening around them.

Troy Rockett as Lev and Jordan Maria Don as Marísa peruse an unexpected artifact in ‘The Displaced’ by Isaac Gómez. (Adam Tolbert)

What hurts most about Marísa and Lev’s inability to see each other as they want to be seen is the tender chemistry that stirs between Don and Rockett, enhanced by Maya Herbsman’s intimacy direction and their own fearless commitment to their roles. At turns Don’s Marísa is imperious and self-confident. She lays claim to her Mexican heritage when it suits her objectives to do so, boasting of intimidating their new neighbors—“my people”—even while cringing from showing solidarity in the face of a neighborhood tragedy.

In contrast, Rockett’s Lev, a Black man stuck in a dead-end service job who dreams of making it as a painter, is more soft-spoken, more delightfully playful. He reads like an open book, even when we discover he’s actually been hiding things all along. Further complicated by their disparate family dynamics—Marísa comes from money and is supported by her parents, Lev is effectively estranged from his—their insular struggle expands to indict a host of social ills.

But truly, The Displaced is best when it lays politics aside and leans into terrifying its protagonists, and audience, as the unrestful spirits of the apartment make themselves definitively known. In the close confines of the Potrero Stage, paranormal activity such as levitation, possession, and a grab-bag of flying objects are felt as much as witnessed by the audience. There’s a tingle of unease and anticipation as your eyes scan the room for what might happen next, a surrender to the inexplicable, and a punch of adrenaline to carry you across the finish line. Moody saturated lighting courtesy of Stephanie Anne Johnson and Ashley Munday fleshes out the visual impact, and Christopher Sauceda’s disquieting soundscape throbs like a tell-tale heart beating for vengeance.

Troy Rockett as Lev facing down some fears in ‘The Displaced’ by Isaac Gómez. (Adam Tolbert)

Further solidifying their reputation for presenting new or under-produced works by emerging and non-canonical American playwrights, Crowded Fire’s pandemic-extended collaboration with Gómez even boasts two alternate endings, one written especially for them (check the calendar for dates). By creating a space for a playwright interested in pushing the boundaries of genre, while also building a sturdy framework of pandemic safety protocols for cast, crew, and audience, Crowded Fire is leading the way back to the indoor stage on multiple fronts. Grab your fanciest mask and your least squeamish bestie, and enjoy the ride.

‘The Displaced’ runs through Oct. 2. Details here.

Copyright 2021 KQED