I’ve seen a lot of productions at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn the past couple of years, but their latest one, Broken Fences, is definitely one of the best. I wish everyone could experience this touching, insightful play. Though it’s not a comedy, it’s often very funny.

This strong work unapologetically confronts the complexities of blacks and whites co-existing in a contemporary urban setting. It’s one of those shows where the characters seem so real that I’m still thinking about them many days after opening night. A solid ensemble vividly portrays sympathetic people who deal with issues of race, economics, and gender.

Forcefully written by Chicago playwright Steven Simoncic, Broken Fences is co-directed by Ann Filmer and Ilesa Duncan. One is white, one is black.

“We need both of our perspectives,” says Filmer, who is also 16th Street’s artistic director.

In Chicago history when we consider the “changing neighborhood” phenomenon, we usually think of white flight and deterioration. But the process of gentrification provides a very different scenario for this play. As upscale newcomers arrive, though the increasing property values indeed stimulate business and deter crime, the downside is the economic eviction or displacement of poor residents who cannot afford the higher rents and jacked-up taxes.

The plot focuses on two 30-something couples who are next-door neighbors in East Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side. A white liberal couple, Czar (Scott Allen Luke) and April (Kirsten D’ Aurelio), who are expecting their first baby after five years of marriage, buy a rehabbed house in that black neighborhood, looking forward to raising their child in a diverse setting where “everyone doesn’t look the same.”

Czar is in advertising; he seems uptight and initially naïve. April is still evolving after going through many phases, as she says, from Goth to slut to princess and such.

They begin making friends with African Americans Hoody (Daniel J. Bryant) and Dee (Krenee A. Tolson) on the other side of the fence.

“Y’all need directions, or somethin’?” Hoody inquires when he first spots his seemingly out-of-place new white neighbors.

Both couples are open to one another but there are cultural gaps. Czar and April want African-American friends, but are they really looking for folks just like themselves but with black skin?

Simoncic’s characters are given dignity and charm. Though there is much humor in the dialogue, the play is sympathetic to both couples.

A couple of years ago, Business Week selected East Garfield Park as one of the most “up and coming” neighborhoods. This play captures the ghetto-neighborhood-in-transition process.

Suddenly Starbucks and Panda Express open, there are yoga classes, and word has it a Whole Foods is coming soon.

Hoody and Dee have been in the neighborhood for years, living in a house that belonged to his mother, a deceased former drug addict. They are now in danger of losing their place due to higher property taxes they’re unable to afford.

Czar and April’s excitable best friends are Spence (Bradford R. Lund) and Barb (Tasha Anne James). Spence talks about having a “McMansion and a McMortgage” out in Schaumburg. They discuss race in code and cannot understand Czar and April’s motives. They accuse them of being “flippers,” those who buy a house under market value, quickly fix it up, and then “flip” it to the next owners for a lot more money.

Bryant has intensity in his eyes yet conveys wisdom and warmth as Hoody, a guy who wears a Jiffy Lube uniform with his name on it. Tolson is equally impressive as Dee, who wants to become a hair stylist. She grew up homeless and is now defiantly focused on not losing their house.

The scorching drama includes lyrical, deeply emotional monologues in which individual characters talk about being “invisible,” unrecognized and unvalidated at points in their lives. These moments are chillingly dramatic.

Hoody’s educated younger brother, Marz (Eric Lynch), is an aggressive barista in the new Starbucks. He and his sibling are often in conflict over the future of their mama’s old house and, like many brothers, differ over their interpretations of past events.

Ryan Czerwonko is a tattooed, rather dim-witted white ex-con who lives with Hoody and Dee.

Spence and Czar work in advertising. There’s a satiric scene about racial stereotyping in ad campaigns — a focus group is conducted about overpriced fake cheese snacks for the target audience of African-American children.

The plot heats up as Czar grows increasingly uncomfortable, then frightened. He finds gang graffiti and discarded crack pipes in his yard. There is some violence in their vicinity. Meanwhile, Hoody hovers dangerously close to losing his mama’s house.

The process of co-directing Broken Fences must have been both exciting and initially challenging for Filmer and Duncan. In theater, the director always has the last word. But how does that work when it’s not one single person? In a recent interview, Filmer admitted: “I can honestly say I was scared to death. How is this done? Who takes the lead?” But, Duncan says, “It all ended up being very organic.”

Presented in the intimate 16th Street Theater venue, this ambitious play about fear and friendship really connects with its audience. It opens up the complexities of gentrification and race from both sides of the fence.

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...

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