Review by Joe DeRosa
Suffice to say, with a storyline that features the lingering threat of violence, family crisis, Chicago style power politics, conflict between the “haves” and “have-nots," a commentary on the racial and cultural gulf that divide the city’s neighborhoods and people into gentrifiers and gentrified, or, as some might say, “colonizers” and the “colonized," there’s already a lot going on in Guadalis Del Carmen’s Not For Sale. But there’s way more to this play.
Not For Sale represents everything there is to love about Chicago theater.
More on this to come. But first...
Presented as part of Destinos, the second annual Chicago International Latino Theater Festival, Del Carmen’s energetic exposition on the impact of changing times on changing neighborhoods is a compelling look at both ends of the only two plots in storytelling--”hero goes on a journey” and “stranger comes to town”--though, at times, it’s tough to tell who the heroes and strangers are.
As the play opens, Reynaldo, a Humboldt Park store owner and neighborhood fixture, played by Latino Chicago Theater Company co-founder Frankie Davila--himself a fixture in Chicago theater--is discussing his impossible property tax bill with Alderwoman Nancy Torres. Torres, played by Daniela Thome, and Reynaldo go way back in the neighborhood, but there’s not much she can do to help him fight the rising tide, and she seems overwhelmed by her own set of political fights, not to mention her husband’s illness.
Into the world of Reynaldo and Nancy’s insurmountable challenges walks Susan (Rebekah Roberts) and Mark (Seamus McMahon), two young, white, newly married dreamers with stars in their eyes. They can see great things in Humboldt Park’s future... once the neighborhood “changes in a few years." But they don’t really have a choice since they’ve been priced out of Wicker Park and Western Village, so they settle on the storefront next to Reynaldo’s as the last best option for their health and wellness store.
When Susan meets her new neighbor, Reynaldo, she offers him a small cup of her foul tasting mint green $30 health tea drink and explains--without the slightest sense of irony--“we’re trying to make the community healthier!” In the confused space that comes to represent Reynaldo’s default perspective on the changing neighborhood--an emotional state that lies between disbelief (”why would anyone would pay $30 a day to be healthy?”) and a certain tenderness for Susan and Mark who are, after all, just trying to make it in the neighborhood--he wishes Susan “good luck with your grass juice.”
And we’re off to the races with a storyline that pits Susan and Mark--with their “well mind, well body, well soul!” super white yuppie “do there have to be flags everywhere?” approach to a rapidly changing Humboldt Park--against old-school Reynaldo and his two young neighborhood pupils, Ricky and Devin, lifelong friends who serve as vanguards of the Humboldt Park resistance and hosts of a YouTube show aptly named Decolonize the Culture. Set against the backdrop of their fight for the future of the upcoming Puerto Festival, the two sides engage in a protracted verbal battle across the cultural divide that is--at once--hilarious, heartbreaking, hip and wise.
So why does Not For Sale represent everything there is to love about Chicago Theater?
Keep in mind this comes from a place of sincere respect, reverence, and love. With dialogue that clips along, dancing to the rhythm of the streets of Humboldt Park, it is quite possible, perhaps likely, that you have never heard of this play. With a storyline that’s both relevant and timeless--two rival houses, both alike in dignity--Not For Sale has been reviewed, by my count, twice. (This is number three, and all three of us have been fans, to put it lightly). And, with a set of performances that gives insight into why people dream of acting, it is entirely possible, maybe even likely, that the cast, at some point, imagined the possibility of a string of performances where there might have been as many people in the audience as there were in the play.
And yet, on the night I drove into Humboldt Park to the UrbanTheater at the behest of a good friend whose opinion I greatly value to see a play about gentrification... the place was packed! The show was a hit! The audience was buzzing with energy and anticipation! Never mind how many reviews. Never mind the possibility no one would show up. And here’s the thing, here’s why this play represents everything I love about Chicago theater: it was impossible to escape the sneaking suspicion that even if no one would have known about it or paid for a ticket, the show would have been every bit as good. That is Chicago Theater. It matters. It’s brave. It takes chances. It’s loaded with talent and heart. And so, of course, is Not For Sale.
Under the skillful direction of Sara Carranza, the phenomenally talented cast of Not For Sale rises to the challenge of the complicated subject matter packaged in profoundly poetic dialogue. Davila owns his character. He is masterful in his role as a shop owner and neighborhood legend with an uncertain future, deeply in love with his place and people, at home in his culture, but with a store he can no longer afford. Roberts and McMahon crush their roles as unwitting gentrifiers--filled with hope, a little naive, hopelessly, unapologetically white in a place where their whiteness represents an existential threat to a culture they don’t understand. They are, somehow, charming yet loathsome, likable yet decidedly not welcome. And this, of course, is no easy feat. Thome and Truss are wonderful as politicians trying to hold on and make a new way. Thome delivers her role as the Alderwoman with heart and frenetic energy, always trying to cope with the new reality of the neighborhood while coming to grips with her husband's terminal illness. And Truss provides, by turns, comic relief and a moral compass in his role as the Alderwoman’s protege and Ricky’s best friend and confidante. With the overall strength of the cast, it’s a close call, but, at points, Andrew Neftali Perez steals the show. Perez, who was mesmerizing in the Griffin Theatre’s Letter Home, gives another brilliant performance as Ricky, the soulful voice of rage against the “colonizers," with a deep love for his friends, family, and neighborhood.
Still, even with the many strong performances, Carranza’s excellent direction, and the visually vibrant and sonically interesting take on a Humboldt Park street brought to life by Andre Payne-Guillory’s set and Nick Rojas’s sound design, the energy and insight provided by Guadalis Del Carmen’s script serves as the soul of the play.
With a story that radiates energy and, at points, moves at a breakneck pace--providing plenty of dramatic, comedic, and genuinely tender moments--Del Carmen conveys a sense that the issues brought on by gentrification are every bit as complicated as the people who live in its wake. At the end of the day, she gives us no easy answers and no one to hate. She reminds us that the city is the city, the neighborhood is the neighborhood, and the people are the people. And we come away from the experience more than a little entertained and whole lot wiser.
Chicago’s UrbanTheater Company’s Not For Sale is presented as part of DESTINOS – the 2nd Chicago International Latino Theater Festival. Performances run through October 20 at Batey Urbano, 2620 W. Division St., on the Paseo Boricua in the heart of Humboldt Park. Show times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15-$25. Tickets to the closing benefit performance, Saturday, October 20, are $40 including food and drinks. For tickets and information, visit urbantheaterchicago.org or call (312) 767-UTC1.