Gripping ‘Good Bones’ at Studio Theatre explores Black gentrification

Pulizer Prize winner James Ijames based the play on his time in DC neighborhoods.

In the spring of 2019, a protest broke out in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Washington, DC, after a T-Mobile store owner was told by the police to turn down or off the clanging Go-Go music he’d blasted from outdoor speakers for decades.

Anger had been swelling for years over who in the neighborhood would have access to shrinking resources, who the police would police, and who the neighborhood really belonged to.

That scene has now been deftly brought to the stage by Studio Theatre in Good Bones, written by James Ijames and directed by Psalmayene 24.

Joel Ashur (Travis) and Cara Ricketts (Aisha) in ‘Good Bones.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

The play forces its audience of mostly white DC residents to think critically about their own role in Black displacement and the sharing of space through the use of unsuspecting characters, the Black gentrifier.

Its acting is gripping, and the set is dynamic, though the plot is at times wanting.

Good Bones was commissioned in 2019 by Studio. Ijames, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fat Ham, wrote the play based on his time in the neighborhoods around Studio Theatre and growing up in Philadelphia, according to Studio’s artistic director David Muse.

It adds to a growing genre of art that explores the Black gentrifier, who’s conflicted about their obligation to give back, their own understanding of “authentically Black,” and their newfound ability to afford.

Middle-class Black people are significantly more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods, according to a 2015 Stanford University study. This act is often spurred on by their attempts to escape anti-Black racism in white suburbs, deep kinship with family and friends in low-income neighborhoods, and bias embedded in the real estate industry. But it prevents Black children from accessing better schools and exacerbates the wealth gap, since homes in Black neighborhoods don’t accrue value the way they do in white neighborhoods.

In Good Bones, Aisha, played by Cara Ricketts, and her husband Travis, played by Joel Ashur, move into a fictionalized city undergoing a rapid demographic shift. Earl, a local contractor played by Johnny Ramey, questions the way Aisha talks, what she does and doesn’t know about the local neighborhood, and her attempt to revitalize the once-abandoned home, which is haunted.

Johnny Ramey (Earl) and Deidre Staples (Carmen) in ‘Good Bones.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

Ashur and Ricketts bring to the stage the sort of authentic chemistry that makes their newfound love believable. Their dance breaks, which co-stars lighting produced by William D’Eugenio, is both well coordinated and entertaining.

There were moments when I thought the plot could move beyond the sometimes-predictable frictions communities across the world experience when class and race clash. We’re only given glimpses at some characters’ backstories. Some of the monologues are redundant and plodding.

Nevertheless, sometimes it’s necessary to say over and over again to an audience that their actions have consequences. That makes Good Bones worth it.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission

Good Bones plays through June 18, 2023, in the Milton Theatre at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW Washington, DC. For tickets ($50–$95, with low-cost options and discounts available), go online or call the box office at 202-332-3300.

The program for Good Bones is online here.

COVID Safety: All performances are mask recommended. Studio Theatre’s complete Health and Safety protocols are here.

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Daarel Burnette II
Daarel Burnette II is a senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Before joining The Chronicle in 2022, he served as an assistant managing editor and reporter for Education Week and the bureau chief of Chalkbeat Tennessee, a start-up news organization based in Memphis. He has worked as an education reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Louisville Courier Journal. He also worked as a general-assignment reporter at The Chicago Tribune. He received his undergraduate degree in print journalism from Hampton University and a master’s degree in politics and journalism from Columbia University. He currently takes acting classes at Studio Acting Conservatory and is a longtime fan of Black theater. Follow him on Twitter @Daarel.


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