On July 27, 1919, 17-year-old Eugene Williams went swimming near Chicago’s 29th Street beach. The raft he and his other Black friends had constructed drifted into a whites-only swimming area, where he was stoned and drowned by white beachgoers. The murder sparked race riots around the city for two weeks, part of America’s “Red Summer” that year, resulting in 23 African-American and 15 white deaths, plus 537 injuries. A thousand Black families were made homeless.
To commemorate that assassination, J. Nicole Brooks has adapted Chicago writer Dr. Eve L. Ewing’s poems into the 90-minute world premiere play 1919, evocative of Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoems,” a mélange of story, song, and movement (designed by Meida McNeal and Abra Johnson). Co-directors Gabrielle Randle-Bent and Tasia A. Jones wrangle a half-dozen energetic actors, named Humans 1-6, to represent the incident, the riots and the results.
Sola Thompson is Ewing’s proxy, playing a writer at an old-fashioned typewriter in a corner of the theater in the round, under a corona of illuminated cobalt blue-glass bottles, and over a series of trap doors that hide props like rain sticks and effects-generators like fog machines (set designed by Yu Shibagaki, lit by Jason Lynch). Apple crates and rocks are also strewn around the space, and are repurposed for striking group tableaux during this poetic fever dream.
Thompson’s Human says “I have to write,” fueled by Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (even though they irritate her GERD). Her muses—two female and three male “Humans” in colorful garb and a pair of roller skates (designed by Gregory Graham) —emerge from the wings to coax and cajole her into understanding. But she balks: “key strokes don’t stop the bullets of today.” The chorus moves to uncover what “they” don’t want us to hear.
The muses insist that “you don’t have to do this alone; we came here to help you,” a promise that also includes the audience, visible under the raised house lights for most of the beginning. The meta writer and her minions parse a 1922 report about the 1919 riot, all but inevitable after The Great Migration. They talk about Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” movement. They ponder a life on land, and a death on water. They ask “how can we live if we don’t explain this nightmare?”
Chicago’s July 1995 heatwave is mentioned, when poor communities suffered 739 deaths. But “death is only hard for the living,” the chorus chimes. The ensemble, which also includes Sheldon D. Brown, DeMorris Burrows, Max Thomas, Jessica Dean Turner and Alexis Ward, are exuberant and expressive, work well as a unit and individually. Their voices are strong as they dissect and amplify a community’s pain still percolating underneath the acknowledgment of a racially divided city, country and world.
Eugene Williams had graduated high school, and was working at a grocery store, ready to enter adulthood when he was tortured and executed (like another of Chicago’s sons, Emmett Till, whose story is told in a new movie, in theaters October 14, and streaming starting October 28). My plus-one Kim Campbell noticed the leitmotif of plums throughout the production, which often symbolize hope and perseverance. Here, they embody the sweetness of dark flesh incarnate, a fecund sphere, a way to hold infinity in the palm of your hand. The chorus mentions Till eating a plum when he was accused of whistling at a white woman. They bring Thompson a plum near the top to offer her more substantive nourishment, a way to gently help her plunge into this difficult, relentless history.
1919 is the second production at Steppenwolf’s new in-the-round Ensemble Theater in Honor of Helen Zell, 1646 N. Halsted, running through October 29. Tickets are available at 312-335-1650, and are $5 for students (student shows currently sold out) and $20 for adults.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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