Valetta Anderson moved to the Oakhurst neighborhood in Decatur 15 years ago, before speculators began dotting street corners with "We Buy Houses" signs. Modest bungalows were seen as homes rather than tear-downs, and kids playing on bikes usually were someone's grandchildren.
"It was an older community, one of those quiet, peaceful places," she said. She and her companion, Cotis Weaver, liked it so much they decided to buy the house they were renting. Not long after, however, younger, mostly white couples began moving in and renovating historic homes, setting in motion the mixed blessing of gentrification so familiar to Atlantans living in older urban areas.
"Now we're going, 'Why did we buy this?' Yes, our property value is increasing, but it's not the same community anymore," said Anderson, 62.
So she did the natural thing for a playwright. She sat down, tried to ignore the din of construction outside her windows, and began to tell a story.
Well, not exactly. At first, Anderson joined neighbors in an ill-fated lawsuit to stop the rezoning of nearby land to allow for greater density. And as much as she was fascinated by the subject, she initially fought the idea of portraying gentrification onstage.
"I didn't really think a play about it would work, just because of the way gentrification itself steamrolls through a community," said Anderson, who has had four previous plays produced. Also, she said, "there's something about issue pieces that can't be treated as issue pieces. The human story has to be projected first."
But the subject kept bubbling up. At the time, Anderson was working on a series of TV episodes she hoped would be her entree into that more lucrative medium. Lisa Adler, co-artistic/producing director of Horizon Theatre in Little Five Points, heard about the scripts and wanted to see them.
"There were two things that got my attention: gentrification and aging relatives," Adler said. "I said, 'Write about those.' "
The result is "Hallelujah Street Blues," which will premiere at Horizon on Friday as part of the National Black Arts Festival. The production will run through Aug. 24.
The comedy/drama takes place in an unnamed city, but Anderson says there's no question it is based on her experiences and those of her neighbors. Anderson's sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking take on gentrification is similar to that of Nathan McCall, a visiting lecturer at Emory University, whose 2007 novel "Them" was set in Atlanta's historically black Old Fourth Ward.
In her play, members of a large multigenerational family, headed by a feisty matriarch, face off against each other and their changing neighborhood. Elderly Josephine wants to sit on the porch of her tidy bungalow and sip sweet tea, but her neighborhood is abuzz with renovators and her house begins to burst at the seams when her adult children descend to fuss and fight over Mama. When their street is targeted for a large development, Josephine and her family must rally or risk losing their beloved house and neighborhood.
As Anderson puts it in the synopsis, this is the backstory of urban renewal: "For today's 'urban pioneers,' gentrification is an exciting adventure in neighborhoods' economic revitalization that enjoys banner headlines and government support. But the elders, who struggle to keep their lifelong investments —- their homes —- are voiceless in this clamor for 'progress.' "
Veronica Redd, who is best known for playing the recurring character of Mamie Johnson on "The Young and the Restless," portrays Josephine. Redd said it has been a "joy" working with Anderson. "She is so grounded, not just in the subject matter of the play but in life. She is open to any suggestions we may have. She is like a great tree. She is well-rooted but can blow in the breeze."
Redd, who recently left Los Angeles to move in with her grandchildren in Pennsylvania, said she has had many friends who have experienced dramatic changes in their communities brought on by gentrification. "It's just so endemic in all of our major cities," she said. "The challenge is to have a voice and a sense of empowerment."
Adler, who lives in the gentrifying neighborhood of Ormewood Park, says the play ultimately is about a family, all of whom are displaced in one way or another. The backdrop of neighborhood upheaval resonates with anyone living intown, she said.
For Anderson, gentrification is just the latest twist in the ebb and flow of city life. She has seen racially charged neighborhood conflicts all her life.
In Chicago, where she grew up, she witnessed both "white flight," when her family moved into a neighborhood, and "blockbusting" —- a tactic used to get white homeowners to sell out of fear that their neighborhood is becoming integrated and their homes are losing value.
"I remember the white flight, and then I remember white people trying to come back and they couldn't afford it," she said. "It's strange to me."
When Anderson was small, her family lived in "that little apartment with a kitchenette that was featured in 'A Raisin in the Sun,' " she said. Her mother used a blackboard to teach her to read and write at an early age. Although they didn't have a lot of material things, her parents had an impressive library that included many classics, such as "A Tale of Two Cities," and most of the well-known African-American authors.
Anderson always loved to read and write, but she says she didn't find her voice as a playwright until she was 40 and saw a production at Jomandi, the defunct Atlanta-based black theater troupe. Before that, she had been a homemaker raising two children in Atlanta with her former husband.
Anderson now works as a resident teaching artist at the Alliance Theatre. One of her strengths as a playwright, Adler says, is her ear for dialogue. "She hears the voices as she writes."
Anderson started writing "Hallelujah Street Blues" on her late father's birthday a couple of years ago. "I was missing him. Daddy's girl and all that," she said. "I just started writing that day and kept going and going. It wasn't particularly his voice, but it was about his generation, those World War II and Korean War people who bought into the American dream and gave it everything they had to give, and are now just trying to survive."
"Hallelujah Street Blues" by Valetta Anderson. $16-$32. Premieres Friday at 8 p.m. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. NE, Atlanta 30307. Information and tickets: www.horizontheatre.com or call 404-584-7450.
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