Dallas playwright’s new comedy explores gentrification in Elm Thicket, her childhood home

A new comedy about two childhood sweethearts reuniting after decades apart becomes a vehicle for examining the troubled racial and economic history of a single Dallas neighborhood: Elm Thicket.

Actor Keith Price and playwright Anyika McMillan-Herod portray Ron and Mira in her play, “Elm Thicket.”

This week, Soul Rep Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Elm Thicket, written by the company’s director, Anyika McMillan-Herod. It’s part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, which is designed to provide an Arts District showcase for smaller theater and dance companies as well as individual performers.

Many North Texans may not be familiar with Elm Thicket, even just its location: For one thing, the community can’t be found on Google Maps.

But Elm Thicket is a working-class, Black neighborhood that’s been around for generations, located between University Park and Love Field. It began as a Freedman’s Town.

And that’s where playwright McMillan-Herod grew up.

“I moved there when I was about seven or eight years old,” she said. “My mom moved my brother and I, we all moved in with my grandmother and my aunt, who bought a duplex on Newmore Avenue. And it was a wonderful place to grow up. You know, it’s like a true community where people really look like me.”

McMillan-Herod said that for the past several years, she’d been pondering a collection of stories set in the neighborhood. Then she thought of turning the stories into a play — “and the characters just came to life for me.”

A recent photo of the house Anyika McMillan-Herod grew up in shows the kind of gentrification in the neighborhood that her play, “Elm Thicket” addresses. Photo: Anyika McMillan-Herod

In Elm Thicket, Ron and Mira, played by Keith Price and McMillan-Herod, were nearly childhood sweethearts growing up together as neighbors. Ron moved away, but now middle-aged, he’s reunited with Mira — in the midst of COVID. While the two catch up with each other’s history and memories, McMillan-Herod draws in the kind of changes that have buffeted Elm Thicket.

“It’s that bad word,” McMillan-Herod said. “Gentrification.”

Gentrification in Elm Thicket

For decades, bigger, modern, pricier homes have been pushing out Elm Thicket’s older, single-family, wood-frame houses.

As a result, property taxes increased to such a degree that many longtime homeowners couldn’t stay. Over a 20-year period, Elm Thicket lost significantly more than half its Black residents — by 2014, what had been an African-American majority had become less than 15% of the neighborhood. Their numbers have increased in recent years but are still far below what they were in 2000.

“Gentrification is a cause of a lot of challenges for people,” McMillan-Herod said, “a lot of pain and disappointment. And so this play is allowing me to explore how this neighborhood issue” affects people on a personal level.

Gentrification like this has certainly happened to other, older North Texas communities. But Elm Thicket’s particular struggle has been called a long and bitter one.

Chipping away at community

In 1954, Dallas repossessed land it had given to Elm Thicket — land the community had turned into a park and a golf course as well as adding 300 homes.

But it was land the city now wanted for expanding Love Field.

Before that, the neighborhood had been ‘redlined’ — deliberately segregated by real estate firms and loan companies.

But “there was strength and beauty” with that kind of segregation, McMillan-Herod said, because it gave the neighborhood a shared identity, a shared experience.

Elm Thicket is called a “serious comedy”: It conveys history through the affectionate interplay of its two characters.

With the influx of suburban-style housing and more white, more upscale neighbors, longtime Black residents, McMillan-Herod said, have felt “othered” in their own community.

Developers even tried to change the name “Elm Thicket” to something more appealing to middle-class homebuyers — like “Elm Park.”

That history, McMillan-Herod said, “shows over 70 years of chipping away at that community. So I think the way the gentrification has happened there, it’s kind of colored it in such a negative way. You know, it’s clearly bringing a University Park aesthetic, plopping it into the middle of the neighborhood.

“So that speaks volumes as to why people feel the way they do.”

A win, a cost

Yet in 2020, the city of Dallas sided with the neighborhood. It imposed zoning restrictions on new construction in Elm Thicket, restrictions many in the neighborhood had fought for.

It would seem Elm Thicket won its long and bitter battle.

A study in abrupt contrasts: Two current homes in Elm Thicket. Photo: Jerome Weeks

“The zoning thing was a huge win,” said McMillan-Herod, “and I’m so happy about that. But the community is still very unaffordable for a lot of people. You know, my husband and I, we’ve just purchased our third house in our marriage, and we’re in Plano. Every time we’ve tried to move, we have tried to move back to Elm Thicket. And we haven’t been able to afford to do so.”

All of this may make Elm Thicket sound like a political tract, an airing of grievances. But the play is called a “serious comedy.” Much of the area history is conveyed through Ron and Mira’s affectionate interplay – and their differences over what to do now.

As for the real-life Elm Thicket, McMillan-Herod said there’s still work needed — if the kind of neighborly community she remembers can be re-established: “Now you go about the more difficult work of how do we build understanding and collaboration — and true community.”

  • Soul Rep’s Elm Thicket opens Thursday, Jan. 11 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center as part of its Elevator Project series. It runs upstairs at the Wyly Theatre through January 20th.

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