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Students Explore Gentrification Through Documentary Drama

A year-long course at the University of Richmond gets students out of the classroom and into the historic Church Hill neighborhood. They’ve been studying gentrification and their work is culminating in a documentary drama to engage people on all sides of the issue. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: “Church Hill: a Changing Neighborhood” will be performed April 12th at 6:00 PM at Armstrong High School. Explore previous stories in the "Made in Church Hill" project and hear from participants in Virginia Current's coverage of the 2014-2015 collaboration. Find more info on this and similiar University of Richmond progams or contact Laura Browder [email protected] & Patricia Herrera at [email protected] For info on the Armstrong Leadership Program, contact Director Yvette Davis Rajput at [email protected]


In a rehearsal room at the University of Richmond, José Joaquín García leads a group of high school and college students through a scene that involves singing and walking.

José Joaquín García: Remember, when you do things over and over, that’s what you do, when you’re learning your ABCs, you do stuff over and over, when you do theater, you do stuff over and over...

The New York-based director, musician and teaching artist is here for 10 days helping the group take their play "Church Hill: a Changing Neighborhood” from the page to the stage.

(Students singing)

Most of the students have never been in play, much less written one. And this performance is unique. It’s a documentary drama that students collaboratively wrote about gentrification in Richmond’s Church Hill. University of Richmond Professor Laura Browder co-teaches the class.

Laura Browder: All of us who live in changing neighborhoods experience gentrification in tiny, daily ways and being able to step back and see it as part of a historical process that’s happening all over the country, is a way of changing the context and maybe opening up a different kind of conversation.

Browder and Professor Patricia Herrera are building on work they started a few years ago that brings together college and high school students, local artists and Church Hill residents. In their first collaboration, portraits and oral histories were displayed at the Valentine Museum’s "Made in Church Hill" exhibit in 2015. The current course began last August. Students spent a lot of time in Church Hill, experiencing the neighborhood through the eyes of longtime residents and newcomers. They took a bike tour, visited a bakery and community garden, interviewed church members and heard from public housing tenant organizers. Through community engagement in different parts of the neighborhood, Herrera says they’re learning about the complexities of gentrification.

Patricia Herrera: And that gentrification is both needed and still hated at the same time and so the question becomes not if there's going to be gentrification, but can gentrification happen with integrity of the people who live in these spaces. So the stories that we hear is more about that desire of “Hey, can you listen, I've been here for a while, this is my story, can you treat me with respect or can you acknowledge me.” And so it's not that they don't want the neighborhood to improve, of course everybody does, but it's the dismissal of humanity, people live there, people who have lived there for many years are there and they have storie and their history is there. So to know that all of a sudden they might leave, that means breaking up their networks, that means breaking up their families, that means perhaps losing a business, that means losing a home and so there’s a lack of understanding or sympathy for that.

Everything in the play comes from real life. Students crafted dialog using interviews, oral histories, public meeting testimony, even online comments from the neighborhood blog, Church Hill People’s News. The characters are real people too, longtime residents, the mayor, the builders planning to redevelop the public housing community Creighton Court.

Melissa Quiroga Herrera: The hardest thing I’ve done this semester most likely is write this play.

Melissa Quiroga Herrera is a sophomore majoring in biology and leadership studies. She says they threw out their first draft completely, and the second one has gone through seven revisions.

Melissa Quiroga Herrera: I'm a science major and most of my life what I’ve done is all science and so the way this class makes me think is very different than the way I usually think. Usually when I'm in my science class there's one answer and either get it right or wrong and here whenever I speak during class Dr. Herrera and Dr. Browder always connected it to another subject so you're never really wrong.

Students traveled to Houston to study gentrification there, they learned about the origins of “Living Newspapers” and read the 1938 Federal Theater Project’s play “One Third of a Nation” which also took up the issue of housing. They spent part of Spring Break in New York learning from the Tectonic Theater Company, which created the documentary drama “The Laramie Project.” Professors Herrera and Browder, along with visiting director García, say exploring gentrification, as a community, in a public setting, can spur dialog and foster connections.

Browder: In the 1930s, it was not uncommon for audience members at Living Newspaper productions of the Federal Theatre to get up and start shouting back at the stage or get into arguments with one another because that's how much the issues matter to them and that's the kind of impact that the drama had on them and we're hopeful that we can achieve something like that here.

Herrera: You know the word on the page is powerful but the live body and conveying that message transcends the word on the page. So there's something about emotion, there's something about connection that is not necessarily on the page and so because some of the members watching this play are going to be interviewees, it is going to have an affect on them and it's also going to have an affect on our students. So for us it's yes, the community but also what's the transformation for our students. We see our role here is how do we transform them into active citizens? The class is going to be done right after this, but hopefully as they move forward, they’re thinking about these complex issues and thinking about their role as citizens as they move forward.

García: For the audience to even think, “Oh my gosh, my story is important, that they're putting it on stage, I didn't know that my story was important,” That can lift your chest up and fill you with such a good medicine to feel that your story is up on stage and that it’s worthy of telling. Then hopefully in telling that story, we remind ourselves of where we come from and where we’ve been.

This semester, the University of Richmond sophomores got another perspective on gentrification when they began meeting with students from Armstrong High School’s leadership program.

Lydell Poeg: It’s diverse, but within the diversity there’s concentrated areas of people throughout Chuch Hill. So it’s diverse but then again it isn’t.

Lydell Poeg moved to Church Hill about a year ago and is a senior at Armstrong. He says he’s the only black person on his block.

Poeg: I go out of my way to talk to people, if they’re doing anything in their yard or if they need help with anything. And that’s how I introduce myself to a lot of people. And it went from, “How you doing?” to “Hey, what’s up Lydell? How’s school going? Have you figured out what college you’re going to?” So I have a pretty warm attitude when it comes to my neighbors.

It’s also important to Poeg that Armstrong students  didn’t just advise the college students. They have prominent roles in the performance.

Poeg: This is the only way we actually get a voice. When I originally heard about play, I kept on asking, how are they going to tell our stories? Wouldn’t it be better if we told our stories or if had a perspective in it? We make it real, we make it authentic, because we're actually from Armstrong, we see it everyday.

For the young people involved in play, this is an opportunity to show a side of Church Hill that doesn’t get included when the neighborhood attracts national media attention for its history, architecture and restaurants. It’s their chance to highlight what’s often hidden in plain site, the public housing communities, the families that move because rent gets too high, the vast differences in life experiences from one block to the next.

Chelsea Trammell: It’s something to get people to stop and think of what is going on.

Chelsea Trammell is a sophomore at Armstrong.

Trammell: Because some people don’t realize it. Everyone has their everyday walking with their dogs, being on their phones and don’t realize that people are losing their homes in a place they’ve lived their whole lives, just being ripped from their hands.

Armstrong students, including Chelsea Trammell, wrote original poetry that’s become part of the play.

The future’s unreasonable. It can give us good, or it can give us bad.
It’s up to the people, the community, the families, the neighborhoods, to bring us justice.
Will we run or will we fight?
Fight for our memories, for our history, for the love that we share for our name.
It's all in our hand, to create our own future.

Following the performance of “Church Hill: a Changing Neighborhood,” residents will lead a panel discussion. Participants hope it will help break down walls and shatter assumptions, that it might spark interest in learning about others’ stories and that it will encourage inclusiveness and active listening as communities engage in conversations about their future. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.