It has been a minute since I have covered a play that hits home in as many ways as The Billboard, now being staged by 16th Street Theater at Northwestern University’s Abbott Hall. Directed by TaRon Patton, the play is set in Englewood, a storied Chicago neighborhood known for “White Flight,” redlining, and convoluted politics. The playwright and journalist Natalie Y. Moore, who reports for WBEZ/NPR, is known as Southside Lois Lane. Moore is a Chicago native, specifically Morgan Park, which is where I grew up. Morgan Park had a place that was spoken about in whispers called Friendship Clinic; it offered reproductive and other healthcare to mostly Black women. All anyone whispered about was the abortion element and not the other health services that were available. It was 1972 when the Roe v Wade decision was issued and now–50 years later, the subject of reproductive care still roils the nation. The health and lives of Black women are at as much risk as they were before Roe v Wade. The Billboard poignantly magnifies these issues with authenticity and heart.
The setting of a real Chicago neighborhood like Englewood adds some gravitas to the play. Moore injects the vacant lots, boarded-up houses, shootings, and open market drug sales into the play. LaQuis Harkins gives a nuanced performance as Dr. Tonya Gray–a Black doctor who grew up in Englewood and has made a success of her clinic–Black Women’s Health Initiative (BWHI). Harkins has emotional weight and fire in her eyes when she wants to respond to a billboard erected by local Black Nationalist and rabble rouser Demetrius Drew (Frederick Paul Williams).
Drew is running for city council in Chicago and erects a billboard with money from White evangelicals saying “abortion is genocide” with an adorable Black baby pictured. The character of Drew is essential to a play about the South side of Chicago. Several Black Nationalist groups emerged including Black Muslims and Black Israelites, advocated for separatism and a hatred for White people. Williams is great in the role with a comic swagger. Drew calls all Black women “queen” and spouts invectives about White people moving in and erasing the Black race. That sounds familiar.
His opponent is Alderwoman Cheryl Lewis, played with perfect Chicago bombast by Veronda G. Carey. Old school Chicago pols are heard before they enter the room. Whether it is loud perfume, loud fashion, or loud voices, you know when they have arrived. Moore’s extensive knowledge of politics gives a veneer of civility to the character of Alderwoman Lewis. One scene with Lewis and BWHI board president Dawn Williamson (Margo Harper) plays this out perfectly. Lewis invites Williamson to brunch and orders a big plate and a drink with an umbrella in it. She regales Williamson with tales of her standing up for Black women and the story of her abortion before she flounces out, sticking Williamson with the tab.
Rounding out the cast is Milan Falls as Kayla Brown, an idealistic young woman who makes her way into doing social media for BWHI. Falls has a lovely ingenue quality with youthful energy, putting some light-hearted fun in the story as she makes influencer videos. Her character gave me hope that young women will put themselves in the fight for women having agency over their own bodies. The Billboard gives hope that young women who grew up with the privilege of their bodies being their business, will see how easily misogyny (in particular against Black women) can turn back the dial to a malignant patriarchal society.
The play is ably directed by TaRon Patton. The pacing is a bit off and it was obvious that some actors either forgot their lines or were aiming for realism in difficult conversations. That happens in real life but on the stage, it should be seamless with the actor’s face and body language filling in the hesitancy. I would also recommend attention to sound quality and mics for the actors. Their positioning on the stage muffled a lot of lines and apparently, projecting the voice is not in everyone’s wheelhouse. The set is spare and kudos to media design specialist Abboye Lawrence for the projections of social media and the billboards that caused all of the controversy.
In the talkback with playwright Moore, she revealed that The Billboard is based on a true story. A billboard—funded by White evangelicals—was put up in Englewood with a picture of President Obama saying that abortion could have killed future leaders like him. It is clear that my stance on abortion is pro-women’s health. Clinics like the one portrayed provide services that allow women to make decisions on their futures without having to answer to a man—which in the immortal words of Frank Zappa—is the crux of the biscuit. Go see it and tell others to go.
The Billboard runs through July 17 at Northwestern University’s Abbott Hall, 710 N. DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Performances are Friday-Sunday with a Thursday performance on July 14. Tickets are $25 and can be bought online or by calling 708-795-6704. The show is 90 minutes with no intermission. A Covid officer at the door will check your vaccine card and ID. Wear a mask on your face, not on your principles. #TrustBlackWomen #BelieveBlackWomen
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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