The Project(s), a documentary-style theater piece that tells the story of Chicago public housing, past and present, had its world premiere in May 2015 at American Theater Company (shut down in 2018). It’s a powerful, moving story of community found and community lost with insights into the meaning of home. The production was stamped with tragedy because its co-author, director and ATC artistic director, P.J. Paparelli, was killed in a car accident during its run.
Today, this Chicago story has a new life and new meaning in a strong virtual production by Stage Left Theatre, during a year of racial injustice protests and a pandemic that has taken a disproportionate toll on people of color.
Christian Helem directs this live production, viewed online through the technology of Zoom and smart video editing. The docudrama is told through interviews with residents of Chicago public housing projects with names like Robert Taylor, Ida B. Wells, Cabrini Green, Lathrop and Wentworth Gardens. Eight actors skillfully perform multiple roles. Their stories give us a flavor of the strong sense of family and community during the early years of public housing and the anger and disappointment when the early promise became a new kind of blight.
Dr. Bradford Hunt (Christopher Wayland) provides background on the history of Chicago’s Black Belt slums, which led first to the development of low-rise public housing like Ida B. Wells and Wentworth Homes in the late 1930s and ‘40s. The first tenants were low-income whites and Blacks and the demand for the units far exceeded the supply at the outset.
Historian Dr. Timuel Black (Darren Jones) also provides historical and personal perspective. He comments on families moving north during the Great Migration, from 1916 through the 1960s. “Families like mine came for three things: to vote, to get a better education for their children, and to protect themselves from the Ku Klux Klan.”
In the 1950s, high-rise development on the same land as the old slums was considered to be yet another advancement but the building style and Chicago Housing Authority management resulted in many more problems, such as lack of play space for children and the rise of a gang culture among young men of color. At one point, 19,000 kids lived in the Robert Taylor Homes—and “kids become teens.”
Public housing seemed “like paradise” at first, with families moving into their own new apartments with new appliances (although the units were quite small for families). Two women (played by Regina Whitehead-Mays and Renee Locket) reminisce about their early years in Ida B. Wells and Wentworth and the sense of community they found living there. Annie Smith (Shariba Rivers) talks about how she became a photographer and Doreen Ambrose (Risha Tenae) describes how her mother, a teacher, gave her books of poetry and encouraged her to write her own. Other individuals interviewed, played by Danyelle Monson, Jaegen Ellison and the rest of the cast, describe their experiences growing up or raising families in the projects. By the 1990s, the high-rises were considered a social failure. The developments were demolished and mixed-income developments were built on their sites, but the close-knit communities of the old projects were not replaced.
The Project(s) was a powerful story of Chicago’s Black history in 2015 (as we described it in our review for Gapers Block) and today it shines an authentic light on the journey that grew sporadically but inevitably into the Black Lives Matter movement and its growing political strength.
The Project(s) was written by P.J. Paparelli and Joshua Jaeger. Enhancing Christian Helem’s direction is projection design by Helem and James Yost. Costume design is by Brenda Winstead. Streaming technology is by Drew Martin. The play runs about 2.5 hours plus two short breaks totaling 15 minutes. Also see the interview with Helem below.
Five livestream performances remain from November 12 to November 21. On November 26, Thanksgiving Day, viewers will now be able to see a recorded performance of The Project(s) any time from 9am through 11pm. The plan was originally to stream a single recorded showing at 6pm.
CORRECTION: In paragraph 7, Risha Tenae played Doreen Ambrose. Danyelle Monson, who was incorrectly listed as playing Doreen Ambrose, is listed later in the paragraph as one of the actors playing other interviewees. We apologize for the error.