The local conversation about development and displacement in Oakland made its way to the University of California, Berkeley in form of a play and panel at Anthony Hall on Tuesday evening. The play “We Go Boom” explores the effect of the tech industry in Oakland by dramatizing the future ribbon cutting at Uptown Station—a real-life project to develop the area above the 19th Street BART Station and the Sears Building at 20th Street and Broadway. The development site was bought by Lane Partners, a commercial real estate company, in 2014 and is expected to be turned into a tech hub and retail space.
This is the first play by The Bonfire Makers, a new theatre company made up of Oakland and Berkeley residents. Melissa Carter, the co-founder of the company and the lead director of the play, said the company wanted their first play to be about technology in the Bay Area. “We wanted to start a dialogue about people getting pushed out of their houses,” Carter said.
Throughout the play, tension escalates as each act highlights a character on opposite ends of the tech boom: tech workers who benefit from the commercial development and longtime Oakland residents who are displaced from local housing due to soaring rent prices. The play also incorporates the role of Oakland Mayor Libby Shaaf in the development of the Uptown area.
One cast member played Shaaf, who in real life during her inaugural speech in January invited tech giant Google to move in to the city. Shaaf’s character sang theatrical songs pieced together from actual interview quotes from the mayor, lines like: “Office space rents are less than half of what they are in San Francisco,” which Shaaf said a 2014 sit-down interview with Bloomberg Business.
Cast members Sonia Decker and Christina Shonkwiler play Oakland transplants, young, white middle class tenants living in a predominantly black neighborhood. Sango Tajima plays a homeless character who goes by the name “The Prophet” and believes in the power of the people. Tierra Allen plays a longtime Oakland resident whose home is in foreclosure and believes that the tech industry is not benefiting poor people of color. Melissa Carter plays an “I’m in it for me” character who use to work for a non-profit but moved on to working in the tech industry for a higher salary. Each of their stories are told leading up a moment when the tech industry must confront the community during the Uptown Station ribbon cutting.
“The plays asks more questions that what it answers,” said Decker, who was its main writer. Decker said the play also addresses the tension between for-profit tech companies and technology being used for social justice.
A crowd of around fifty people crowded into the space to watch the play, including U.C. Berkeley students and some Oakland residents. “The play is amazing, and it shined light around the complexities of the issue,” said Nicole Dixon, a longtime Oakland resident.
Rasheed Shabazz, who was born in Oakland, said, “It was an interesting performance of the narrative of displacement and how tech and diversity intersect in different people lives.” Shabazz said the play would be helpful for tech workers who are coming to Oakland to learn about the city’s culture.
“You can’t have conversation about tech without discussion on how it changes [communities],” said Packwood. “I would like to see technology that is different from capitalism, a utility for a greater cause, other than money.”
Panelists also discussed the role of tech workers in the change of communities. “Tech workers should approach communities with a humble attitude and understand how they are impacting the community,” Sylvain said.
The company has performed “We Go Boom” in Oakland at Temescal Arts Center and Omni Commons. For more information on the play and the The Bonfire Makers, visit www.thebonfiremakers.com.