Gentrification has been the subject of countless plays and performances in New York, but the number of productions taking it on seems to have increased dramatically in recent years. Things picked up steam in 2010 with the New York premiere of Clybourne Park at Playwrights Horizon in Manhattan, as well as the launch of The Civilians’ musical about the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, titled In the Footprint. In the past few months alone you could have seen LaTonia Phipps’s Now Harlem… GENTRIFY THIS, Urban Theatre Movement’s HANDBALL, Penny Arcade’s performance piece Longing Lasts Longer, and the People’s Theater Project show Pardon Our Appearance, among others. And this week you can catch a new work in progress, Brer Rabbit: The Opera (full title: Brer Rabbit The Opera: A Funky Meditation On Gentrification [Work-in-Progress]), created by performance artist Aisha Cousins and writer and musician Greg Tate, along with Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, which he founded.
While some people may feel talked out on the subject, this latest project seems worth taking in — not just because of the talent that Cousins, Tate, and Burnt Sugar bring, along with their histories of foregrounding black American culture and perspectives in their work, but also because of their choice to place Brer Rabbit at the center of the production. Cousins in particular seems to have a long-held interest in the figure, creating a performance score in 2011 that encourages people to celebrate Brer Rabbit Day.
For those with only a vague knowledge or memory of the tales, Brer Rabbit is a key part of the North American canon, even if it remains largely unacknowledged as such. Brer Rabbit brings together diasporic traditions from Africa with indigenous traditions of North America to create a uniquely American remix grounded largely in the South during the time of slavery and beyond. And, like so many great characters in literary history, Brer Rabbit draws on lengthy oral traditions nearly impossible to pin down to single authors, and which echo back into histories that far outlive recordings on paper or in bits and bytes.
Brer Rabbit lives in a briar patch, a tangle of thorny plants, and gets up to all kinds of pranks in his pursuit of both food and the attention of attractive females. He’s constantly mounting antics and schemes to obtain his desires, typically succeeding or escaping fights by tricking others into doing the work for him. “The trickster myth derives creative intelligence from appetite,” scholar Lewis Hyde writes in his book Trickster Makes the World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, getting at the fact that it is the wiley rabbit’s literal need for food that makes him crafty and cunning. Many look to Brer Rabbit stories in the US as tales of how slaves found ways of preserving themselves and getting the better of those who made claims to own them.
In the most well-known Brer Rabbit tale, the hero is trying to escape from Brer Fox, who’s lured him away with a doll made of tar, or a “tar baby.” With Rabbit trapped in the sticky goo, Fox tries to decide what to do with him, and Rabbit begs for Fox to do anything but throw him in the briar patch. Eventually Fox does precisely that, not realizing that Rabbit calls the thorny thicket home, and so it’s no punishment at all to be sent there.
“Tricksters are there to help you discover your character, discover who you are, discover who you can be,” Brer Rabbit: The Opera director Letitia Guillory told me. “It’s always your choice, but that’s part of their purpose. Their purpose is to shake the basket, to create a little mischief and see what you do with it, but more importantly for you to see how you handle it. It’s not so much about [the trickster].”
Hyde makes a related observation at the end of his book, drawing on a quote from James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village,” about race relations in the US contrasted with his own experiences in Europe: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them … and hence all Black men have toward all white men an attitude which is designed, really, either to rob the man of the jewel of his naivete, or else to make it cost him dear.” Pulling that passage apart and relating it to the role of the trickster, Hyde offers this reflection of his own: “Whosoever hopes to loosen that ‘binding’ and reshape the essences will have to ‘steal the jewel of naivete,’ which means to engage in transgressions sufficiently mind-boggling that illusion must resurface from the unconscious, where it lies forgotten.”
Brer Rabbit is a particularly interesting character to use to explore questions of gentrification, because the stories operate in US culture on different plains. Many people have come to know them primarily through versions created by white men, despite their unquestionable rootings in and transmission through communities of color. One of the earliest published retellings of the tales was by President Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle Robert Roosevelt, though it was Joel Chandler Harris who gained wide popularity for his versions. Disney adapted Harris’s books into Song of the South, a live action and animated film released in 1946. Strongly critiqued for its depiction of southern blacks and former slaves, that film was never released on home video or DVD, and you will find no reference to it on the Disney website, save brief mention in descriptions of the amusement park ride Splash Mountain; however, many of the animated sequences were shown on television for years, the most famous of which includes the song “Zip A Dee Doo Dah.” Considering the ways in which these stories have been appropriated by and profited upon by the largely white mainstream culture, Brer Rabbit seems like a particularly ripe lens through which to explore the fraught narratives around gentrification.
Although it is a work-in-progress, this promises to be one of the more interesting shows about gentrification happening of late. With Greg Tate and Burnt Sugar in charge of the score, you can expect the music to be a rollicking mix of funk, rock, jazz, and soul, with unexpected elements thrown in. According to Guillory it won’t be a traditional opera, in the sense that there will be spoken text by actors interspersed with the music. And undoubtedly there will be ample trickery, from those on stage and those behind the curtains.
Brer Rabbit The Opera: A Funky Meditation On Gentrification (Work-in-Progress) will be performed at BRIC House on January 22 & 23, at 8pm.