Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale: A must-see at Wilma Theatre

-Brenda Hillegas
Photo by Joanna Austin

If the weather was a bit nicer today, I’d have my windows opened and I’d be able to hear the sounds of construction a few blocks behind my house. There are new condos coming and they’re about three times the price I paid for my own house just a few years ago. And just steps away from a nearly 100 year-old shoe repair store and a pharmacy that’s been around since 1859 (!) is a brand new BYOB and a soon to open brewery.  I’m not complaining about that any of it (especially the brewery), but some people in my neighborhood are because they have been here for decades. Prices go up all around, apartments are being built on top of old buildings, and things just aren’t what they used to be. “What’s happening to our neighborhood?” they ask.

But that question is asked everywhere.

Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale highlights the gentrification of Harlem. In 2010, Jaylene Clark Owens made a Facebook post comparing Harlem to the belly of a killer whale (you’ll find out why in the play). A former teacher encouraged her to expand the thought. Owens performs in (and directs) the show with fellow co-writers Hollis Heath and Janelle Heatley (additional writing credits go to Chyann Sapp).

These three women are so passionate about this love letter to Harlem and it shows. They play childhood friends who are now in their mid-twenties and meet up on their old street to discuss the possibility of creating something big and inspiring in their neighborhood. As they talk about the things they used to do together and what they’re up to now, they also notice and comment on the changes happening around them.

Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale is a rare theatre gems that really does have everything- it’s funny as these women bring up their carefree and innocent childhood memories…but also bittersweet and even just sad as they realize everything around them is evolving. The trio go through a variety of emotions and characters at ease as they tell their stories to the audience. They take a serious topic and spin it with comedy, dance routines, singing, and powerful dialogue performed in spoken-word poetry format ((you’re encouraged to clap, snap, cheer, and shout in support throughout the show). Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale combines everything you love about theatre into a one-act, 70 minute performance that will leave audiences thinking hard about the communities around them.

You don’t have to be familiar with Harlem to appreciate the message. Whether the dialogue evokes memories of your current town or the street you played on with your friends as a kid, you’ll know exactly what these women are talking about. Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale helps us understand and accept the evolution of a neighborhood all while holding tight to our memories and knowing that no matter how much change may be happening in any given place, the roots of your home aren’t going anywhere. 

Tickets to this story, at the Wilma Theatre through March 7th, are available here. Jaylene Clark Owens will host an open mic based on the themes of the show on March 2nd at 7pm. There will also be an open caption performance this Saturday, February 29th, at 2pm.

In addition to public performances, the Wilma will host a few student matinees to reach hundreds of students in Philadelphia’s public high schools. Students will go on to create their own original works through Wilmagination- the Wilma’s school residency program.

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