In GOOD BONES, James Ijames Carefully Approaches the Ugliness of Displacement — Review

Washington D.C.

Cara Ricketts, Joel Ashur, and Johnny Ramey | Photo: Margot Schulman

Nathan Pugh
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June 16, 2023 11:20 AM

At what point does your neighborhood become unrecognizable? That’s the question a lot of Washington, D.C. locals are grappling with everyday. Between 2000 and 2020, the city’s Black population dropped from 59% to 41% (with almost 58,000 Black residents leaving the District). Riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 left much of 14th Street and U Street Northwest destroyed for decades; nowadays, sleek apartment buildings and rent hikes are forcing gay bars and many Black residents out of the city. 

Knowing all of this, it’s a surreal experience to watch the world premiere of Good Bones (a play grappling with gentrification and displacement) now at Studio Theatre, a performing arts space located on 14th Street. Studio Theatre commissioned playwright James Ijames to write a new play in 2019; since then, he’s won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Fat Ham, concluded a year as the creative director of Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre, and became a 2023 Tony nominee

Watching Good Bones, you’re witnessing a playwright at the height of his career, using his platform to discuss the systemic issues at the heart of Studio Theatre’s neighborhood. You’re also watching the show that may unconsciously be accelerating the rapid changes in the neighborhood; every time I’ve gone to a show at Studio, the audiences have been majority white and elderly (like nearly all regional theaters in D.C.). This cognitive dissonance provides a meta-textual element to Good Bones’ story that’s fascinating, one that lingers in the mind longer than the play itself.

Johnny Ramey and Deidre Staples | Photo: Margot Schulman

Good Bones’ plot is straightforward enough. The pregnant Aisha (Cara Ricketts) and her husband Travis (a very funny Joel Ashur) have just moved into a townhouse. Aisha’s an urban planner interested in “revitalization,” and Travis is a chef at an upscale restaurant; they’re a Black, affluent power-couple hoping to bring their dream house to life. Their contractor Earl (Johnny Ramey) is making this dream a reality. Earl grew up in the area, and is dedicated to preserving the history of the couples’ townhouse, since it previously belonged to a neighborhood elder known as Sister Bernice.

The joyful camaraderie between the three is soon tested across socio-economic and ideological divides. Although they come from the same block, Aisha and Earl’s relationship fractures when they disagree on what’s best for the neighborhood. Travis becomes frustrated when a late-night party keeps him from sleeping, and he calls the cops to shut it down. On top of all of this, laughter keeps popping up around the house: foreboding, incorporeal, and strange.

Good Bones is first and foremost Aisha’s story. As someone who grew up in a neighborhood that’s transformed (for better and worse) without her, she feels the most internal conflict about returning “home.” It makes sense that Ijames may feel the most affinity with Aisha—Black playwrights also must feel conflicted creating a home in an theater industry that, like a “revitalized” neighborhood, is rapidly changing and haunted by the past at the same time. In performance, Cara Ricketts does a fantastic job embodying Aisha: you emphatically feel the temerity it took for Aisha to forge her own path, and the desperation she feels to not be alone on the path anymore. 

Ijames is incredibly skilled at writing humorous, lively dialogue. Although Good Bones deals with serious subject matter, the jokes flow quickly and easily, and the language occasionally wanders into metaphor in profound ways. When describing the power of Aisha’s townhouse, Earl states, “These houses are sturdy. Shits built like a ribcage. The bones are so good. If you sit really still in here, you can feel the walls breathing and the floors lifting to meet your feet.” 

Joel Ashur, Johnny Ramey, and Cara Ricketts | Photo: Margot Schulman

Sadly Ijames undercuts these moments of conversational, casual grace with three frustrating writing choices. First, Ijames doesn’t set the play in D.C.—instead crafting an abstract neighborhood that robs the story of specificity. Second, IJames provides little challenge to Earl’s belief system: he’s a man that prioritizes the past above all else, and by the end of the play he seems vindicated in that truth. And third, IJames misses much of the dramatic potential of his play. Most of Good Bones is building up to Travis and Aisha finally recognizing how their biases can have disastrous consequences—a process that can be an ugly thing to witness. But Good Bones perhaps doesn’t get ugly enough, and barely dramatizes the struggle and discomfort it takes to “do the work” once you’ve been called out. That journey for Aisha and Travis could’ve comprised a whole second act of this show.

Thankfully, this Studio Theatre production works to smoothen out these script pitfalls. First, Director Psalmayene 24 wisely employs go-go music in a reference to the #DontMuteDC activism movement, adding another layer of resonance for D.C. residents (although some might say it’s still “if you know, you know” background noise). Second, the great actress Deidre Staples imbues her character Carmen, the sister of Earl, with enough verve to at least briefly test Earl’s nostalgia. And third, sound designer Megumi Katayama makes the sound of laughter feel so visceral, that the audience feels the ugliness of forgetting those who are gone even when the characters do not. Within the laughter, Katayama stretches out time within the show that a second act couldn’t approach.

With Good Bones, James Ijames is working in the tradition of many Black playwrights who commune with the displaced and dead (August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate seem like points of reference). Yet I see more connection between Ijames and the Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntassel, who advocates for everyday practices of Indigenous identity by asking the question “How will your ancestors and future generations recognize you as Indigenous?”

Joel Ashur and Cara Ricketts | Photo: Margot Schulman

Ijames isn’t interested in ascribing practices to some essentialized idea of Blackness—in fact, part of the joy of Good Bones is that it’s an all-Black cast that doesn’t obsess too hard about being perceived outside of their community. The question animating Ijames’ play might instead be “How will your ancestors and future generations recognize you as a good neighbor?” Ijames points us in the direction of community—block parties, open doors, home-cooked meals, music in the streets. He points us in the direction of people listening to others in a public space, not knowing what they’re going to say next, and not being able to control their “noise level” or “tone”—the same experience as watching theater.

I wonder, though, if Good Bones simply lures audience members into the illusion of community. Performing arts venues are often at the center of “revitalization” development deals in D.C.—from The Anthem to the Atlantis—and often are too expensive or exclusive to truly include the local community. Does going to Studio Theatre to see this play constitute being a good neighbor? Good Bones makes a convincing argument saying yes, at least watching these issues play out is the first step in being a good neighbor. 

Yet there are limits to what watching a play can do; “first steps” are often not enough. Good Bones often feels like a mirror house of watching: Ijames watches his characters, the audience watches the play, our ancestors and future generations watch us, we watch ourselves. I have a deep admiration for theater that encourages this soulful watching. I also long for true conversation, something that Good Bones—and any theater—only provides once it’s over.

Good Bones is in performance at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre through June 18. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Nathan Pugh

Nathan Pugh is a writer, culture critic, and essayist based in the Washington, D.C. area. Nathan graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in Theater and English (concentration in race/ethnicity), where he also served as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Wesleyan Argus. Pugh’s work strives to explore how intersectional identities are staged, with his current long-form writing focusing on Black gay playwrights from Virginia.

Washington D.C.
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