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Gentrification hit Harlem first, and now a housing-boom play born there makes its Philly premiere

Theatre Horizon stages "Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale" Feb. 22-24. We talk to co-creator Jaylene Clark Owens.

(Left to right:) Janelle Heatley, Jaylene Clark Owens, and Hollis Heath in "Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale," Feb. 22-24 at Theatre Horizon in Norristown.
(Left to right:) Janelle Heatley, Jaylene Clark Owens, and Hollis Heath in "Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale," Feb. 22-24 at Theatre Horizon in Norristown.Read moreHarlem KW Project, LLC

It all started with a Facebook post. In early 2011, Jaylene Clark Owens, actor, poet, director, was longing to get back into spoken-word performance:

It’s time to stop dipping a toe in here, wading in a little bit there. I need to jump back into this sea world of poetry like I’m Shamu … heavy. Too much gentrification going on in Harlem to get light. Time to spit killer lines with killer rhymes of killer tales. Cuz Harlem is looking more and more like the belly of a killer whale.

Struck by that metaphor of killer whale = gentrification, a former teacher asked Owens to create a theater piece around it. Owens contacted three close friends — actresses Hollis Heath and Janelle Heatley, and fellow writer Chyann Sapp — and, before long, the Harlem KW Project LLC was born.

And they created Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale. Part spoken-word, part theater, part storytelling, part song and dance, the show has been on what Owens calls “a constantly evolving world tour,” beginning in 2011 at the American Negro Theatre at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem.

Owens, Heath, and Heatley perform it. Sapp helped with the writing but doesn’t appear on stage.

It makes its Philadelphia premiere Friday through Sunday at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, part of a totally rethought approach to Theatre Horizon’s 2018-19 season.

Renaissance starts with three women, friends since childhood, who gather on a Harlem stoop. One of the characters “drops a bomb on the rest of us” concerning changes in the neighborhood, “and we navigate from there," Owens says. "We sing, we dance, we bust rhymes — you can snap, like you do at a spoken-word event.”

Gentrification is the kernel of the show. Although you hear the phrase “Harlem is back” all the time, the neighborhood’s revival comes at a cost. “We’ve felt it, positive and negative,” Owens says, “in our neighborhoods, our families, our streets.”

Owens has become such a force on Philly stages — including her current work with the Wilma Hothouse incubator group — that it takes a beat to realize she is Harlem at heart.

“Hollis has been my best friend since we were both growing up there at 4 years old,” Owens says, “and Janelle and I met at Harlem School of the Arts.”

Fond memories of Harlem contend with ambivalence. “Growing up, I was surrounded by black culture,” Owens says. She remembers “Harlem Weekend in August, with so much eating, drinking, and dancing in the street.”

Heath says, “To be honest, I didn’t always love it. I felt like we had to travel a long way for nice things, and a lot of the stores were not well set up. But then you had the beautiful things, the Harlem Parade in the spring, and the street drummers, and my father teaching me to roller-blade and skate in the park across the street.”

Things are changing fast. “When we started this show,” Owens says, “three of the four of us lived in Harlem. Now, none of us do. We’ve gotten priced out.”

Heath says, "I had to move to the Bronx to afford decent living space.”

Killer Whale seems to resonate with people from all over. “Folks from Philly to South Africa tell me, ‘The same thing is happening where I live,’ ” Owens says.

Heath hears the same thing from people “from Detroit to Paris. That’s why we love doing the show: It resonates.”

“It’s a way to encourage people to think about the neighborhoods they grew up in,” Heath says. “And maybe to think about supporting that, being active participants in preserving the culture.”

Erin Reilly, artistic director at Theatre Horizon, says Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale fits well with this season’s “move to break free of the typical theater season’s constraints.”

Instead of putting on the usual three full-scale productions, Reilly says, Theatre Horizon broke things up, offering six productions, diverse in size, content, and length of run. “Not everything, after all, demands full-scale staging to be effective,” Reilly says.

The season began with September’s staged reading of The Laramie Project, followed by a critically praised full-on production of The Color Purple, and now the spoken-word-influenced Killer Whale.

Next up is another three-hander, The Few (March 14-April 7) by MacArthur Grant-winner Samuel D. Hunter, starring Suli Holum and Steven Rishard.

An autobiographical solo cabaret show by Rachel Camp follows (May 9-12). The season closes with another miniature theatrical gem, [Untitled] [Project] #213 by Steve Pacek (May 31-June 2).


Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale

Feb. 22-24 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown. Tickets: $15-$31. Information: 610-283-2230,