Review: Congo Square Theatre Illuminates an Uncomfortable Truth in Welcome to Matteson

Congo Square Theatre is celebrating its 25th anniversary of staging a full spectrum of the Black experience in America. A part of that celebration is the world premiere of Welcome to Matteson, which pulls back the cover on caste and class differences within the Black community. Playwright Inda Craig-Galván has written a nuanced and visceral look at what happens when those who have moved on up find that what they left behind has moved in next door. It is a ticking grenade with dark humor skillfully directed by Ericka Ratcliff, artistic director of Congo Square Theatre.

Gerald and Patricia Griffin are an upper-middle-class couple who live in Matteson, Illinois. Patricia (Sydney Charles) is having an anxiety-fueled time preparing a dinner to welcome their new neighbors, Corey and Regina Baker. Gerald (Ronald L. Conner) is doing his best to soothe his wife’s nerves to no avail. Charles is sublime as a woman on the edge, full of secrets and a simmering rage at the thought of her dreams and security being usurped by people moving in from the Cabrini Green housing project.

I have been to some homes in the Matteson and Country Club Hills and the set designer Joe Schermoly has the look and vibe down perfectly. The sunken living room, open concept with a fireplace, took me way back to when I was invited to a family wedding. I noticed how antsy the hosts were about anyone being actually inside the house. We watched the vows standing in the street and went to my in-laws across the street to order a pizza. The set has that bougie look with props curated and placed by Mariah Bennet.

Conner is great as the acquiescent husband who wants to keep the peace and make the best of the situation. He finds a magazine with a white woman on the cover that Patricia has hidden in the kitchen drawer and razzes her about it. Patricia goes into a full-blown meltdown of denial where she insists that she is not hiding it. It is funny when she puts it back in the living room saying, “White woman on the coffee table!” It is darkly funny when she hides it again under the tabletop. Gerald pours himself a scotch and tries to defuse the anxiety but the more he tries to calm her the more she frets at what the new people will think of her.

Regina Baker is played by the luminous Alexis J. Rostin. She is fresh off the extended run success of Marie and Rosetta at Northlight, where she played a sanctified church girl with a voice from God. Before that Rostin was magnificent in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at Mercury Theater Cabaret. She does a whip-smart turn as Regina, who is from the projects but not stupid and suffers no bullshit. I didn’t recognize her with blond hair and the persona of a round-the-way girl. Rostin got some of the funniest and most revealing lines at the expense of Patricia’s discomfort.

Alexis J. Rostin and Sydney Charles. Photo by Sulyman Stokes.

Anthony J. Irons is remarkable as Corey, who is proud to be able to provide for his wife and genuinely loves her. Irons and Conner are great as two men who can overlook the tension and be friends based on tools, water heaters, and sports. Gerald expresses his surprise that Corey plays golf because there are no golf courses in Cabrini. Corey tells him that he was a caddy and got a golf scholarship, revealing that he and Gerald had that scholarship in common.

I found the dinner scene to be very funny and an example of great writing without Black-splaining. Irons and Rostin’s comic timing with comments on the food is hilarious and it is equally funny to watch the reactions of Conner and Charles try to smooth it over. It is “cream sauce” versus “gravy” as much as it is “Patricia” and not “Patty.”

Craig-Galván stirs some magical realism into the script and it fits perfectly with the motif of being frozen in place and having the stability that you have known literally shaken under your feet. Great sound effects by Willow James and lighting by Gabrielle Strong, bring the audience into the set while the cast seems set adrift. Anyone who has survived a Chicago winter will identify on a gut level.

The writing doesn’t make Patricia a total villain when we learn that she was a part of distributing racist flyers to get the neighbors to vote against their new housing being opened to displaced residents of Cabrini. Regina points out that it wasn’t all crime and violence and that there was a community that is now lost to them. They did not ask to have their homes demolished and what some would depict as a notorious ghetto was a product of the media influence, entrenched racism, and the city of Chicago wanting to clear prime land on the Gold Coast.

The demolition of Cabrini Green was controversial. Homes were quickly built for those who could get a mortgage with government assistance. Other residents were sent to scattered-site housing with Section 8 vouchers for reduced rent. The notoriety of Cabrini was enhanced by a constant spotlight on crime, unwed mothers, and a lack of nuclear families. The truth was that fathers didn't live in the homes with their families so that they could qualify for public housing. This play reveals a lot of truth that has not been spoken as eloquently as it is by the ensemble with great character development and good pacing. (Historical note: The Projects(s), a documentary-style play about residents at the end of Cabrini Green and other Chicago public housing, was originated by the late American Theatre Company in 2015 and remounted virtually in 2020 by Stage Left Theatre.)

Alexis J. Rostin, Anthony J. Irons, Sydney Charles, and Ronald L. Conner. Photo by Sulyman Stokes.

Welcome to Matteson delves into the fine distinction of what makes a community and does a brilliant job of portraying the nuances of Black life in America. When Patricia calls Corey and Regina n*ggers, the grenade explodes more truths are revealed. Corey calls Patricia and Gerald “Jack and Jill” people, which was a great line. The Jack and Jill organization was exclusively for young Black people from the right families and the right complexion—as in no darker than a paper bag.

This is a great production to kick off the 25th season for Congo Square Theatre, which has been giving voice to the Black experience with relevance, humor, truth, and healing. I covered What to Send Up When It Goes Down and they had a healing ceremony that everyone was invited to take part in, but special attention was given to the Black audience. One of the slogans of Congo Square is “Blackity Black-Black,” and that can be a healing mantra for those who pay close enough attention no matter their race. Welcome to Matteson is an excellent show that has something for everyone.

Welcome to Matteson runs 90 minutes with no intermission. The show is playing at Abbott Hall on the Northwestern University campus, 710 N. DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays through October 1. Tickets are $45 and Congo Square also offers a Radical Generosity ticket at $75 to give a ticket to a community member who may not have as much access to live theater. For more information, please visit congosquaretheatre.org/welcome-to-Matteson.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.