It seems fitting that in order to get to and from Transcend, a meditation by Kilusan Bautista on his experiences with gentrification and what he identifies as America's housing war on the poor, we walked down a St. Mark's Street scrubbed almost entirely of its grimy counter-cultural past and reborn as a corridor of gleaming ramen restaurants and Mac repair shops. Having debuted this past August at the New York Fringe Festival, Transcend has returned to New York after a run in California's Bay Area, another, perhaps even worse, hotbed of skyrocketing housing costs. Bautista's one-man show, his second, is an eclectic mix of narrative, spoken word, dance, and multimedia elements that focuses on his own experience of temporary homelessness as an exemplar of systemic inequalities.
Transcend follows Bautista's struggles to find a new apartment when he is priced out of and removed from the Brooklyn sublet that he shares with his girlfriend, a frustrating search that he must undertake while working and attending graduate school full time. (His former apartment is, of course, put back on the market at a much higher rent.) The play is structured around stops on the NYC subway, such as the Nevins Street station, in an area of Brooklyn that, as the play notes, is rapidly coming to resemble an extension of lower Manhattan, and the stop for Brooklyn College, where Bautista's lack of a place to shower or sleep makes keeping up with classes, or even feeling like he belongs in them, difficult. He talks with Joe Bataan, King of Latin Soul, in El Barrio, itself under threat of gentrification and rebranding as "East Harlem." He recounts a visit from his California-based parents, who are supportive of his artistic goals but also themselves one paycheck away from not being able to meet their housing payments, and a visit to the welfare offices in Bed-Stuy, where white residents pass the outdoor line of shivering people of color in comfortable obliviousness. The journey eventually brings Bautista and the audience to the Bronx, the last stronghold against the forces of gentrification (although, like El Barrio, already the target in some areas of rebranding efforts).
Throughout this journey, Bautista deftly sketches characters in the narrative portions and uses his body expressively. The projected images, often of distorted NYC skylines or panoramas, often play across his body, suggesting their interconnection, for better or worse. His performance reminds us that New York has long been a haven for artists, but that it is nearly impossible to be able to afford to create art in the new NYC. Whether the artists moving into areas that they could afford were themselves the harbingers of gentrification is another question, one that Bautista neither directly addresses nor ignores.
Each week during its run at UNDER St. Mark's, Transcend will showcase a local artist in a pre-show performance. Opening night, that artist was Jackson Lee, a.k.a. jaeL (an acronym for Just an Everyday Life, which is also the name of his website), a Brooklyn rapper whose music is available through Bandcamp. jaeL did a short, tight, high-energy set with a lot of stylistic variation, interspersed with honest discussion of his creative process, including his insomnia, and his struggles, including against disapproving family, in becoming a professional artist.
Struggle, of course, is a clear link between the opening and main performances, but so are perseverance and optimism. Transcend highlights the insanity of the urban housing market, but it also retains a sense of possibility. Through all of the rejections, burdensome paperwork requirements, and other obstacles and indignities, Bautista keeps trying, keeps fighting. In the end, not long after Bautista enumerates some necessary social reforms, a projection of moving along elevated subway tracks gives way to a multicolored tunnel of light, an image of the titular transcendence and of hope for the future of New York City and America. In a time when damaging gentrification shows no signs of slowing and when a man who has no experience on housing policy and opposes government assistance programs is poised to become the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the issues that Transcend probes will only become more urgent. - Leah Richard & John Ziegler