Chicago Theater Review: THE PROJECT(S) (American Theater Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 6, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

THE ONCE AND FALLEN DREAM

Omar Evans and Kenn E. Head in American Theater Company's world premiere documentary play THE PROJECT(S). Photo by Michael Brosilow.It’s a continuing crisis seen from the inside out, fleshed out with warmth and truth. In The Project(s), American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli and documentarian Joshua Jaeger create a 140-minute crash course and action meditation on Chicago’s infam0us housing projects. Inspired by Jacob Riis’s pioneering expose How The Other Half Lives, the projects began as a well-intentioned, even “progressive” Depression-era experiment in a mass occupancy to rival mass transit. The CHA (Chicago Housing Authority), in tandem with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, worked to contain the northward “Great Migration” of African Americans in vast future tenements named Stateway and Wentworth Gardens and Lathrop, Clarence Darrow and Ida B. Wells Homes. Unintended consequences reduced (and enlarged) these mammoth edifices to minimum-security holding pens for the impoverished, abandoned by the working poor and overwhelmed by drug-peddling, gangbanging squatters. The hope for a happy home became a waking nightmare in a brokeass ghetto.

Penelope Walker (right) and the ensemble of American Theater Company's world premiere documentary play THE PROJECT(S). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

That nearly century-long “blueprint for disaster” is cogently conveyed by eight inspired actors. Powerfully and painfully, they relate testimony from the authors’ over-100 interviews with city officials, experts on urban incarceration, and past and present residents of public housing. Using vintage video and evocative photos (projections by Michael Stanfill), employing a driving score by Jakari Sherman and a you-are-there sound design by Patrick Bley, this new ATC docudrama relates how urban renewal became “Negro removal,” how spotless interiors became infested with rat turds and bedbugs, and how, defying degradation, a resilient and undefeated populace could make a village out of a concentration camp or training jail.

Linda Bright Clay, Joslyn Jones, Penelope Walker and Eunice Woods in American Theater Company's world premiere documentary play THE PROJECT(S). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Representing old and young, eager activists and weary survivors, a vibrant, shape-shifting ensemble–Linda Bright Clay, Omar Evans, Kenn E. Head, Joslyn Jones, Stephen Conrad Moore, Penelope Walker, AnJi White and Eunice Woods–testify in searing confessionals, spirited conversations, even breakout dances. We hear about the paradisiacal early days when not even the first Mayor Daley wanted high rises for low-income residents. Pride of possession and block-party solidarity flourished in contrast to the alternative–the substandard conditions of decaying 19th century neighborhoods. Rules and regulations abounded but they were seen as sensible and fair, not, as later, convenient excuses to evict entire families for the bad behavior of a prodigal son.

Kenn E. Head, Omar Evans and Stephen Conrad Moore in American Theater Company's world premiere documentary play THE PROJECT(S). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

But miscalculations about supply and demand (underestimating the effect of many more kids than adults and competing suburban rental opportunities) led to 16-floor monstrosities like the South Side’s sprawling and ultimately unlivable Robert Taylor Homes (28,000 inhabitants!) and the North Side’s notorious Cabrini-Green development (where the late Mayor Jane Byrne condescended to briefly live).

Kenn E. Head, Anji White and Eunice Woods in American Theater Company's world premiere documentary play THE PROJECT(S). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Elevators broke down or were gang-controlled. Barren yards and empty apartments became shooting galleries for bullets and heroin. Empty hallways facilitated rapes of convenience. Loud music blared nightly–and the police all but surrendered the turf to the Gangster Disciples and other predators. Dislocation became inevitable: The demolition of these big-box edifices is powerfully suggested by cascading dust and falling debris. Concrete aside, the tenants have become displaced persons in their own nation as inequality increases, even without the gargantuan projects to prove it. “CHAnge,” as the “authority” put it, is constant but it’s far from progress.

Eunice Woods (right) and the ensemble of American Theater Company's world premiere documentary play THE PROJECT(S). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

As Paperelli puts it, “We wanted this story to return to the places where it was born.” ATC is literally doing it by offering free performances this month in the Cabrini-Green and Wentworth environs. But it’s on the Byron Street stage that this kinetic remembrance resonates and reminds. So many tales from the front, the anecdotes, memories, rationalizations, analyses, and songs accumulate into a burning oral history as civic-minded as it is theatrically intense. Like Cold Basement’s recent Heat Wave at Steppenwolf Garage or Chicago Slam Works’ Redlined, this is Windy City storytelling worthy of Sandburg and Algren. Even better, it’s the real deal.

Anji White in American Theater Company's world premiere documentary play THE PROJECT(S). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Kenn E. Head (top) and Anji White in American Theater Company's world premiere documentary play THE PROJECT(S). Photo by Michael Brosilow.The Project(s)
American Theater Company
1909 W Byron
ends on May 24, 2015 EXTENDED to June 21, 2015
[on March 4, 2018, American Theater Company ceased operations;
more on this story at Chicago Tribune]

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