The Heights

One-act play about The Heights casts residents, confronts neighborhood stereotypes

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“People are people. Just some are afraid and blame it on their neighborhood. And some know when the problem is more complicated than that, some know that we’re all a little bit guilty if the community we live in is broken.”

These scripted words capture the central theme of the Heights Neighborhood Stories Performance, a one-act play based on the experiences of Heights residents who believe that what makes a neighborhood great are ordinary people willing to invest in the place they live and in the people around them.

The locally-produced play was based on the stories of eight residents of the Heights, an area of Memphis north of Summer Avenue, south of Jackson Avenue, east of Scott Street and west of North Graham Street. The U.S. 2017 Census identifies that almost 30 percent of residents are Latino, and those experiences were front and center at the play, which was performed alternately in English and Spanish.

Close to 50 community members attended the free performance on February 8, which took place at Su Casa Family Ministries at 302 North Graham Street and was a collaboration between Yancy Art, Latino Memphis, Memphis 3.0 and Theatre Memphis. Jerry’s Sno-Cones provided free snow-cones for attendees to enjoy before the show and the performance was followed by a community conversation and potluck with food donated by local eateries Queen of Sheba Restaurant and La Michoacana.

Yancy Villa-Calvo, currently a city artist with the Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Plan, organized the performance as a community engagement strategy and artistic response to the Memphis 3.0 planning process.

City artists are artists selected through a collaboration between the UrbanArt Commission and the City of Memphis’ Office of Comprehensive Planning to design and implement meaningful approaches to involve residents in the planning process and amplify community dialogues that will shape the future of our city.

Related: "The intersection of art and urban planning makes Memphis 3.0 a multimedia strategy"

“It’s important that we see what’s happening in the neighborhoods and highlight these stories so the rest of the community understand what gems exist,” said Villa-Calvo.

Set at Jerry’s Sno Cones, a 51 year old neighborhood institution located at 1657 Wells Station Road, the play followed the conversations of strangers and neighbors waiting for their snow-cone orders, celebrating some of the unique qualities of the multicultural Memphis neighborhood, as well as touching more difficult themes of blight, flight, and what makes a good neighbor. The script referenced recent news in the Heights neighborhood, including a proposed expansion for a landfill at Davis Circle near I-40 that the community faced in opposition.

Telling Their Own Stories

The Heights Neighborhood Stories project began a year and a half ago when Villa-Calvo attended a neighborhood storytelling performance in Binghampton produced by Theatre Memphis. Shortly after, she approached Theatre Memphis Director of Education and Community Engagement Leslie Barker about doing something similar in the Heights.

Villa-Calvo was already working with Memphis 3.0 at the time, so she and Barker approached Latino Memphis, another Memphis 3.0 Community Partner, about securing grant funding for the project. In the fall of 2018, Latino Memphis received an Arts Builds Communities grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission, administered through Arts Memphis.

Once some funding was secured, the next step, Barker said, was to get connected to the neighborhood, “because I can’t tell their stories, they have to tell their stories.”

Show organizers lead a community conversation after the show. From left to right: Leslie Barker, director of education and community engagement at Theatre Memphis and Yancy Villa-Calvo, a artist who works with urban planners and residents to inform the Memphis 3.0 plan. (Scarlet Ponder)

Together, Barker and Villa-Calvo organized a community dinner where they invited local residents, community development corporations, and other neighborhood organizations to have a conversation and share stories and experiences about their neighborhood. The dinner was also catered by local neighborhood restaurants.

Several of these neighborhood organizations and businesses sponsored the final performance, including Jerry’s Sno Cones, La Michoacana, Queen of Sheba Restaurant, Streets Ministries and The Heights CDC.

Rory Hatchel, an English teacher at Kingsbury High School, also attended the dinner. Using the conversations recorded from the dinner, he incorporated the conversations and stories into the one-act play.

Barker and Villa-Calvo felt it was crucial that the performance is centered around residents' stories while providing the opportunity for residents to tell those stories. Hatchel recruited several of his former students at Kingsbury to act in the performance. The rest of the cast was comprised of actors from Theatre Memphis.

Villa-Calvo hopes to replicate this method of storytelling in other Memphis neighborhoods.

Challenging Negative Perceptions

A theme throughout the show was a desire to change the perceptions that other Memphians often have of their beloved neighborhood.

Said cast member and Heights resident Ricardo Trejo before the show, “There’s a stigma around the Heights and Memphis in general, but people who actually live here are good people, they look out for others.”

This stigma is represented clearly in the performance when the character of Barbara, a middle-aged woman from Midtown, lets slip the fact that Jerry’s Sno-Cones is the only reason she comes to the Heights. She then comments on the “cute houses” that are “so affordable,” adouble-edgedd compliment that is not kindly received by the neighborhood residents.

The refrain “Cheaper housing! Cute houses!” is repeated again with comedic emphasis later in the show as the reason why one family chose to move to the neighborhood.

Laughs of recognition from the audience suggested that Heights residents are used to hearing these kind of comments.

“[We have] a lot of locally owned, locally started businesses,” said Trejo, “ I heard it’s going to be re-dubbed the International District, which is so cool because it’s so true.”

Related: "Summer Avenue to rebrand as an international district"

Besides its diversity and thriving locally owned businesses, the performance highlighted another quality that residents love about the Heights: the sense of community.

For example, the character Juan, an elderly Latino man, notices a suspicious group of guys in his neighbor’s driveway and calls the police thus preventing a car theft.

Another example is the mother who hears about a proposed landfill by the railroad tracks on Graham, and despite warnings that “people don’t go to neighborhood meetings anymore,” decides to host a meeting at her home, going door to door inviting neighbors to join her.

Cast members strike a pose before the show. Front left to right: Jazmin Bautista and Michel Angel; Back left to right: Casey Greer, Miranda Tonkin, Brianna Valente, Ricardo Trejo, Kierra Turner, Yancy Villa-Calvo, David Aklin, Leslie Barker. Not shown is cast member Oscar Aguilar. (Scarlet Ponder)

“I think a lot of people are scared of each other. If people knew their neighbors we’d be less scared,” said cast member Michel Angel, who grew up in the Heights, “I feel like fear is holding us back form what we could be.”

Even so, the Heights Neighborhood Stories did not shy away from confronting some of the neighborhoods more difficult challenges, seen in the monologue in which a resident recalls her parents warning her and her young siblings not to enter the abandoned houses.

“They did their best to lie, to protect us. They told us the abandoned houses were haunted. That people moved away because they couldn’t get rid of their ghosts ... What other reason could it be when neighbors all around me faded into the background?”


Memphis 3.0 Builds on Community Anchors

One of the ways that the Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Growth Plan seeks to build up communities is by centering growth strategies around neighborhood anchors, like the Heights' Jerry’s Sno-Cones and other community gathering spots.

“I loved that this show was really centered around the anchor,” said Ashley Cash, head administrator at the City’s Office of Comprehensive Planning. “It’s what we think about in planning and sometimes have a difficult time explaining, but [an anchor is] the place where you go and end up running into folks who you’ve seen but haven’t really talked to. It’s a way to build community and it gives you something to build around.”

The Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Plan, which centers its growth strategy for housing, infrastructure, and transportation around community anchors, has been in process since October 2016, and could be formally adopted by the Land Use Control Board on February 14 if all goes as planned.

Through their stories, Heights residents suggest that “We are all a little guilty for our community being broken.” The cast asks the audience if we are all part of the problem, how can we all be part of the solution?

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Read more articles by Scarlet Ponder.

Scarlet Ponder is a certified urban planner and an honorary Memphian of five years. As a freelance writer and local transit planer, she is passionate about promoting equitable urban policy and amplifying the stories of everyday change-makers.