Power Street Theatre’s production of Erlina Ortiz’s MinorityLand received an encore presentation at Theatre Horizon after a recent successful run in North Philadelphia. First staged in the 2013 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, MinorityLand is a worthwhile two-act play full of promise that tackles the complications of gentrification.
No-one is immune
Mama Julia (played by Power Street cofounder Gabriela Sanchez), a mother-hen abuela type always ready to feed a small army, decides to rent out rooms in her Philadelphia home to local students in an attempt to keep up with rising housing costs. But when Saxon and Amelia arrive, they bring the tense reminder that the nearby college is quickly buying up real estate, and that no-one can guarantee their place in the neighborhood—not even Mama Julia, who has lived in her home for more than 20 years.
Leading the charge against impending gentrification is Otis, Mama Julia’s young neighbor, played with a boisterous, piss-and-vinegar air by Freddy Amill. He and his older sister-turned-guardian Deborah (an understated Anjoli Santiago) see Mama Julia as a second mother, and Otis fiercely objects to the “Caucasian invasion” taking place in Mama Julia’s house and his neighborhood. But neither Saxon nor Amelia are as they appear (i.e. super white and super elitist), and they all must decide whether their differing identities will keep them fractured or bring them together to fight against the real estate company forcing residents out of their homes.
Conversations on identity
The incorporation of conversations surrounding identity keep things from being, ahem, too black-and-white. However, while a hot-button topic like gentrification thrives under nuanced examination, Ortiz occasionally bites off too much social justice than her otherwise tight play can chew. The second act is plump with revelations and social commentary designed to add depth of character, particularly for Amelia and Deborah, two young women with eerily parallel lives. But other players get short shrift by comparison, like Saxon, whose queer identity and connections to his estranged family are hinted at but underexplored.
Ortiz teamed up with Cat Ramirez to direct, and they’re well-matched: the piece maintained a unified voice. They encouraged a playful intimacy amongst the ensemble, with some relationships soaring under the influence. The relationship between Otis and his best friend George (played with comedic verve by Amy Boehly) is especially endearing. But a direct-address prologue coupled with bringing up the house lights toward the end of the play disrupted the action rather than implicating the audience and driving home the point that we all play a part in gentrification.
And the decision to have Sanchez take on Mama Julia was a perplexing one, reminiscent of college productions with 20-somethings playing geriatric characters due to lack of older actors. Sanchez is at least 30 years away from this role being an appropriate vehicle, and her youthfulness couldn’t be masked under a wig, shuffling steps, and a hunch that hints at lumbago.
Sara Outing’s spare yet effective set and props gave us a peek into Mama Julia’s home, complete with lace doilies for the dining table, porcelain roosters, and a reproduction of da Vinci’s The Last Supper hanging above an altar of votive candles and a small cross. Combined with Lindsay Drucker’s lighting design, we get an economical representation of multiple locations—though some staging casts awkward shadows on actors who fall in and out of their light.
MinorityLand is just as relevant, if not more so, than when it premiered six years ago. “Cambia, cambia, cambia,” or “change, change, change,” is both a reflection and a rallying cry in the play, and in her program note, Ortiz wrote, “I hope when people see this play they will see something of themselves, they will learn something of themselves, and they will leave the theatre feeling like they can make positive change in the world.” Ortiz and the rest of the Power Street team have done their part—the rest is up to us.
What, When, Where
MinorityLand. By Erlina Ortiz. Directed by Cat Ramirez and Erlina Ortiz. Through October 13, 2019, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pennsylvania. (610) 283-2230 or theatrehorizon.org.
Theatre Horizon is fully wheelchair-accessible, and you can purchase ADA-compliant seating online, by calling the box office, or emailing [email protected]. However, there are no ADA parking spaces in Theatre Horizon’s private lot.