Six Questions for Jessica Thebus, Director of Buzzer at the Goodman Theatre

Gentrification, class, race, and addiction combine in Tracey Scott Wilson’s drama.

Director Jessica Thebus and playwright Tracey Scott Wilson rehearsing Buzzer.   Photo: Courtesy of Goodman Theatre

Race, privilege, power and gentrification—such prickly matters are loaded with the potential for provocation and controversy.

For director Jessica Thebus, they are also the source of rich, uncompromising drama. With playwright Tracey Scott Wilson’s Buzzer, Thebus tackles a narrative that provides no easy answers or tidy resolutions. 

Chicago caught up with the Steppenwolf associate artist, frequent Lookingglass Theatre collaborator, and Chicago native with a life-long background in theater—her mom is Chicago actor Mary Ann Thebus—shortly before Buzzer’s opening:

On the surface, Buzzer almost sounds like a sort of modern variation on Three’s Company: Jackson, a very successful young black attorney, his white girlfriend Suzy, and his white drug-addict best friend Don all move in together after Jackson buys a condo in his old neighborhood. But there’s so much depth beyond that synopsis—what is it really about?

 I feel like this is a play about the America we all live in. We’re in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ culture where race is not supposed to matter. And we’ve all been taught to be color blind, and what we’re not supposed to say about race. But we’re not post-racial. And that starts to show when Jackson, Suzy, and Don find themselves in this very specific situation; living in a transitioning neighborhood that puts a new and intense pressures on all of them. There’s a moment in the play when people are trapped on one side of a door or the other. I feel like in that scene, Tracey is letting us look straight at America, simultaneously still and hurtling forward.

How does Buzzer manage to take something that freighted and complicated and boil it down to compelling drama? 

When I first read Buzzer, you know what struck me? Its intimacy. This is a very intimate, very explosive story about three people. That combination that Tracey achieves, that mix of intimacy and explosiveness, that’s fascinating to me. And what I also love about the play is that it brings up all these things—race, class, power, privilege—but it doesn’t try to reduce them, to tie them all together, into something simple on stage. Buzzer really digs into the complexities, into the messiness. It doesn’t leave you with everything neatly tied together.

One of the most challenging things about directing this is that everyone’s point—Don and Suzy and Jackson—they’re all valid. The other challenging thing is the frankness of the conversation Tracey has in the piece. It makes us really think about your relationship to race, and the assumptions we make, to admit to the often unspoken kind of racial, gender, and class tensions that we have.

The characters in Buzzer talk a lot about fear. How does fear help define them?

Well, Suzy has a very direct fear of her feelings; she’s really angry at the guys hanging out on the corner harassing her, but she’s afraid that those feelings make her racist. Don’s afraid of using again. He’s pretty sure that if he goes back and gets high, he’ll die. And Jackson, he’s afraid of failure. He’s determined, no matter what, to figure things out and work them out.

Buzzer also really digs into addiction. What is the importance of adding that element to the story?

Don’s the drug addict, but to me, it feels like all three of these characters are struggling with figuring out what’s good for them. We had a woman at a talk-back the other night who had a great observation, something I hadn’t thought of. She saw Jackson as an addict. He’s not into drugs, but he’s addicted to the neighborhood where he grew up. He can’t stay away. He could live anywhere, but he chooses to live there. He wants to be a gentrifier, to get in on the ground floor of the neighborhood’s transition. It’s like Jackson has to win, win over the guys on the corner who are harassing Suzy, win over the crime he grew up with. That says a lot in terms of masculinity and cultural power, a lot about what how Jackson feels he absolutely must triumph in this environment that, growing up, he fought so hard to escape.

Nothing is completely resolved in Buzzer. 

Part of what Buzzer asks is, how can we have these conversations about race and privilege without giving offense? And part of the answer is, maybe we can’t. I think Buzzer is saying we have to let the offense happen, and not just shut down the conversation because we’re afraid of it. Being willing to have these difficult conversations? That’s the important, the necessary thing.

What’s next for you?

I’m at Lookingglass, directing Sara Gmitter’s In the Garden, the story of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma Wedgwood.

Buzzer plays at the Goodman Theatre through March 9.

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