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Dance Place: Hyman M. Perlo Studio
Sunday, July 12 at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, July 16 at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, July 22 at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, July 25 at 2:30 p.m.
They say: One woman’s witty, unabashedly honest account of a gentrifying DC neighborhood. A hilarious, provocative deconstruction of race and class that redefines the nature of community and implicates Gabriel as an agent of change, for better or worse.
Joe’s take: I am the Gentry succeeds admirably at talking comfortably about uncomfortable topics — race, class, money, education, and the ways they all play into the story of Washington, D.C. gentrification in the first 15 years of the 21st century.
The first word in the title of Cara Gabriel’s one-woman show is just as important as the last one, though. This show isn’t an interrogation or indictment of gentrification writ large, and it has no prescriptions. It’s the poignant, episodic, and often very funny story of one well-educated white woman from upstate New York who moved to the north side of H St. NE in the early 2000s — “before Whole Foods moved in,” the program notes — because she and her husband couldn’t afford a house in the classier parts of Capitol Hill.
Gabriel is often the villain in her own stories, or at least the cad or the snob. She turns up her nose at the chicken bones and takeaway boxes her mostly black neighbors leave strewn along the streets. She’s desperate for the local Chinese-pizza-and-sub shops to go out of business and be replaced by a Trader Joe’s. She’s horrified when her husband allows a local, toothless crack whore to use their bathroom.
But she also cares deeply about her neighbors, knows their stories, and visits with them each time she walks her beagle. They address her as one of “us” when they talk about the other gentrifiers moving in, one by one, driving up property values and forcing them from the homes they’ve lived in for generations. She’s not preoccupied with race and class but it keeps punching her in the face. She’s hyperaware that a mere accident of birth has given her far more opportunities than most of her neighbors ever knew. She’s anguished when she contemplates moving so her daughter can be in a better school district and have those same opportunities denied her neighbors’ children.
The show is set on a simple stage meant to be Gabriel’s front porch, decorated with a portable CD player and the “Hammer” baseball bat her husband once wielded when they were fending off a local pit bull. Before the opening night performance, she casually offered to pour water for audience members as if they were guests visiting her home.
I am the Gentry occasionally turns to extended metaphors to explain Gabriel’s neighborhood and its inhabitants, and, though far from corny, these are some of the show’s weaker moments. Gabriel is at her best when simply observing the world around her and her feelings about it rather than trying to explain what it all means. Another minor weakness is that Gabriel carries a script with her throughout the show, though it seems barely necessary. She knows the lines so well and speaks so fluidly she often seems to forget the script is there, and the audience does as well.
Probably the best endorsement for I am the Gentry came at the end of the opening night performance, when Gabriel invited the audience to talk for the last 15 minutes before the next performance rushed in. The (almost wholly white) audience spoke fluidly and freely, sometimes angrily, and seemingly honestly about gentrification on H Street and Brookland, where the show is staged — times they’d been gentrifiers, why they left, and whether an almost entirely white room could really make sense of these questions.
See it if: You’re looking for an honest and funny take on race and class in the District.
Skip it if: The phrase “honest and funny take on race and class in the District” makes you want to yawn, scream or pull your hair out.
Photo courtesy of Cara Gabriel