For horror fans, this is a season of fearsome bounty. While Ike Holter's frightfully good The Light Fantastic brings the screams to Jackalope Theatre, Haven Theatre premieres Isaac Gomez' The Displaced, opening in previews Thursday, May 31.
Gomez applies the genre of terror to an everyday occurrence that can be as scary as any demonic possession: Gentrification. In his Pilsen-set play, an upscale interracial couple finds their new home isn't exactly uninhabited. Non-spoiler: The previous tenants, a Mexican family, are determined to make life hell on earth for newcomers Marisa ( Karen Rodriguez ) and Lev ( Rashaad Hall ).
"This play began as a vehicle to help me understand where my place here was," said Gomez, 27. "It was also to hold myself accountable. What does it mean to be on each side of gentrification? And what if you have similar roots as the people you're displacing?"
Gomez's plot begins as the couple settles in to their new home. Seemingly innocuous minor nuisances ( lights flickering, pictures falling off the walls ) rapidly escalate into events both inexplicable and alarming ( bloody, headless chickens turning up where you least expect them ). Eventually, the plot veers dead-on into the realms of the fiendish. Gomez draws on the strikingly similar rituals of Catholicism and Santeria as he explores the impact of well-off newcomers moving into a historically working-class Latinx neighborhood.
"I had family members who are deep, deep into Santeria," Gomez said of the ancient, ritualistic African-Caribbean religion that slave owners and other colonizers tried to co-opt into Christianity. Gomez doesn't practice santeria, but he understands it. "Faith gives you power. We all need things to believe in, things that are bigger than ourselves whether it's Islam or Judaism or Christianity or Buddhism," he said.
As a Mexican American who grew up in El Paso, Texas, surrounded by kin- and skinfolk, Gomez is familiar with the perils of gentrification. "I love Pilsenthe murals, botanicas, spiritual seers. It seems so familiar to me," he said of the long-time Latinx neighborhood on Chicago's Southwest Side. "It's heartbreaking to me to see business and families that have been in Pilsen for generations getting pushed out, little family-owned taquerias turning into white-napkin restaurants. "
For Director Jo Cattell, a native of the United Kingdom, the current political climate is horrifying even without the specter of a chickening.
"As immigrants, we struggle to find our place. When you feel you've finally achieved that and then you start getting pushed out? That feels like a horror story to me," Cattell said.
Also among life's most terrifying elements: Breaking up with your significant other of many years. For Lev and Marisa, the move to Pilsen is supposed to be a fresh start for their crumbling relationship.
"Everything is breaking around them and so is their relationship," Cattell said. "That feeling of being trapped, with no safe place to turn. That feeling is something we're all afraid of."
Gomez has been in Rogers Park for more than two years. He moved to Chicago for an internship at the Goodman after earning his bachelor's degree at the University of Texas, Austin.
"This is a city where artists are not afraid to ask hard questions. That's what really impressed me and a big part of why I wanted to stay here," he said.
Gomez's first Chicago home was in South Shore, where he had first-hand experience with some of the issues in The Displaced.
"One of my earliest memories in Chicago is go going to a Target on Cottage Grove and the cashier telling me, 'You are the wrong shade of brown to be here,'" he recalled.
"I knew I wanted to write a play that dealt with race as well as gentrification," he said. "I knew my main characters would be an interracial coupleMexican and African Americanbecause I wanted to explore the dynamics when race and gentrification intersect," Gomez said.
In The Displaced that intersection is the stuff of nightmaressomething else of which Gomez is aware.
"As a kid, I had terrible nightmares. Horrible, violent, dreams. When I was younger I would talk about them. Lots of times when I dreamed something bad would happen to someone, it would then actually happen. So after this happened a few times, my mom and dad were like, 'we don't want to hear about your dreams anymore.' So I stopped talking about them. But I still have them."
Cattell hopes The Displaced both frightens people and makes them think.
"I hope they're scared," she said. "I also hope [the play] helps people take a look at their own role in their community. This conversation is so much more complex than any single person or single couple."
Haven is giving The Displaced its world premiere, but the production's story goes back millennia.
"We are all living on stolen land," Gomez said. "Before gentrification we had colonialism. Physically, emotionally and spiritually the displacement takes a toll. Obviously on the people being displaced. But also on the people pushing them out."
Haven Theatre's The Displaced runs May 31-July 1 at The Den Theatre's Bookspan Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.. Tickets are pay-what-you-can for previews through June 5, and $18 during the regular run. Visit HavenTheatreChicago.com .