There was a biting chill in the air. The moon made no attempt to hide behind a sheer veil of passing clouds. Specks of drizzle dotted my face — reminding me of how long it’s been since this city last saw rain.
It wasn’t exactly “a dark and stormy night,” but the actual San Francisco weather made for a fine prelude to Isaac Gómez’s horror play, The Displaced. Asked to show proof of vaccination before entering, I thought about the far more frightening prospect of another long fall and winter of pandemic uncertainty.
After its intended 2020 opening was delayed by COVID-19, the show now makes its Bay Area debut with Crowded Fire Theater. Recently, I interviewed Mina Morita (Crowded Fire’s artistic director and this show’s co-director with Karina Gutiérrez) for a cover story. I asked her then why a scary story was appropriate for most patrons’ first indoor entertainment in over a year.
“There’s this feeling when you’re able to lose yourself in a horror show,” she told me. “We keep talking about how this play is a feast, a gleeful, terror-filled, feast for the senses. We could not imagine a better way to come back to live theater, to get our hearts pumping in unison again in response to what’s up on stage.”
The stage in question is an apartment in a Latinx Chicago neighborhood. Its brick walls and wooden scaffoldings — brought into being by scenic designer Carlos Aceves — give it a nice “lived-in” quality. The new occupants are a Black man named Lev (Troy Rockett) and a Latina named Marísa (Jordan María Don). They’re a millennial couple who believe their PoC status absolves them from any accusation of gentrification. It’s soon revealed that Lev isn’t even from Chicago and Marísa’s family is so rich that her previous place was in the affluent Lincoln Park.
We meet them as they’re settling in. Some boxes need to be opened, a few items seem to be missing, and the two can’t seem to agree on a color scheme for the walls. While painter Lev wants “Blaxican” colors to represent he and Marísa, Marísa’s preferred shades are “not pink, they’re pastels.” In a nod to their bourgeois sensibilities, they verbally acknowledge that they “see” one another when attempting to defuse such superficial arguments.
Still, everything seems fine until Alexa goes haywire — spontaneously playing ranchera music, then broadcasting a news report about a Latinx family displaced by a fire a few blocks away. That’s when things get really weird.
The fundamental rule of horror is that, despite its gruesome reputation, it lives and dies by atmosphere. All of the blood and violence mean nothing if you can’t create a setting that genuinely puts viewers on edge. It’s to the production’s credit that Morita, Gutiérrez, and their tech crew make this a top priority. What begins as a few pictures falling over and odd items left at the door eventually grows into a seat-rattling rumble and a rather clever depiction of levitation. There are still a few bloody acts of violence that may turn off the squeamish, but those are supplementary to the already established idea that this building — whose previous occupants were violent to one another — does not want this couple here.
Gómez’s script is most effective when laying the groundwork for the scares. Familial experience with brujas left Marísa put off by its practitioners. “Door-openers,” she calls them. “But you never know what door you’re opening.” When the supernatural goings-on become harder to ignore as coincidence, she’s both the first to notice and the one most sensitive to the power of the spirit. (Don particularly gets to show off her acting and physical skills during the play’s climax.)
What’s more, the script works best when its gentrification commentary is more subtle. Rich girl Marísa’s comments strike the right uncomfortable tone, boasting that she’s “a different kind of Mexican” than their neighbors, and hanging onto the fact that the neighborhood used to be all Irish.
What doesn’t land as well are Lev’s long-winded monologues. Rockett remains an able performer, but Lev’s drawn-out story about a racist encounter at a bus stop goes nowhere, and an anecdote about his father seems to exist just to set up a later revelation about Lev. Further moments, like the aforementioned “I see you” and comments about white supremacy, feel more like kvetching about millennials than attempting to connect with them.
It’s the telling character moments — like Marísa’s reluctance toward Lev’s sex request, her comments about his procrastination, or Lev refusing to show her his phone because it suggests a lack of trust — that really reveal who these people are. The new couple reflects the apartment’s previous couple, for better or worse. Given that the play seems to occur in real time, the more complex shades of the characters are what make us want to stick with them to the conclusion. Given that Morita has revealed that the show has multiple endings, it inspires one to possibly see it again.
In the same mid-August interview, Morita followed up her comments about horror by telling me that the play further resonated with her because “the themes of displacement and gentrification are still very much present in the Bay Area.” Indeed, the Potrero Stage in the Outer Mission now faces a posh new apartment building across the street, giving the area a completely different feel than it had early last year, let alone a decade ago. Though set in Chicago, it’s easy to see why a Latinx-written story about gentrification would be an apt choice for a show performed in The Mission. The company’s pay-as-you-can policy for in-person attendees and folks streaming at home may well extend that access.
A combination of good characterization and flawless technical skills keep The Displaced focused when the script occasionally wanders off-course. Mind you, that script is still good — it just gets lost in the woods from time to time. A tale of terror might not have been everyone’s first pick for a return to live performance, but as Halloween draws near and the weather grows colder, it may well be a welcome reprieve from a world in which the real terrors keep piling up.
In-person: Sept. 10 – Oct. 2, Streaming: Sept. 22 – Oct. 16 | 90 minutes, no intermission
No one under 12 admitted | This show contains strobe effects, smoking haze, acts of bloody violence, and depictions of self-harm.
Pay what you can ($16 recommended) | CrowdedFire.org
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at The Thinking Man’s Idiot.