Conceived and directed by P J Paparelli
Choreographed and music composition by Jakari Sherman
At ATC -American Theatre Company, Chicago
Oral history chronicles the Chicago social experiment of stacking large numbers of poor folks into high rise building.
P J Paparelli and Joshua Jaeger utilized the Studs Terkel method of interviewing folks from three generations of public housing residents in Chicago projects such as Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, among others. Linda Bright Clay, Omar Evans, Kenn E. Head, Joslyn Jones, Stephen Conrad Moore, Penelope Walker, Anji White and Eunice Woods deftly present the oral history of the Black experience in Chicago that included their movement into the ‘Projects.’
From the 1940’s when World War II led to a large Black migration from the South to Chicago, there was only horrible housing available for theses migrants in the “Black Belt” in the segregated city. We hear the old timers, who cherished being able to move into new digs, even 16 story high-rise public housing. Warm communities were formed that quickly had problems due to misguided government polices and the inherent mistake of housing large number of children (and people) into high rise buildings without proper budgets to maintain them, without adequate social services, and without schools and recreational facilities.
These ‘projects’ were over crowed and as the children grew into teens, inevitable conflicts erupted due to boredom and stupid policies by CHA that included not allowing poor, welfare-dependant families with an adult male to live in the subsidized housing thus forcing families to break up. Despite the best efforts of locals to keep a community spirit, these projects were a doomed social experiment that led to devastation, especially for teenage males. Gangs flourished despite the efforts of mothers and local leaders.
Told in three acts, ‘THE PROJECT(S)’ is an honest oral history of a shameful social experiment that basically was born out of institutionalized racism and the political strategy to concentrate black folks into places were the powers can control their votes. This important show explains how life in these places trapped residents into the cycle of poverty and crime for generations.
It also speaks to the wisdom by CHA and the federal government by tearing down those horrible high rises without thinking through what to do with displaced residents. It may be good to build nice low-rise modern digs, but herding residents around Chicagoland to communities and suburbs like Elgin only made these residents feel isolated from their former communities. Among the teenage boys, landing in another gang’s territory uninvited only led to an increase in killings
This telling oral history was powerfully presented by a fine ensemble of actors who dynamically presented the problems, dilemmas, and contradictions of life in public housing. It is a startlingly truthful play that lets the story become its own conclusion. It’s too bad that we don’t hear more about why parents don’t do more to get rid of the guns in their communities? One of the messages I got from this amazing oral history is the basic resignation of many of the residents to the status quo. This hopelessness seems to be too strong despite a large human spirit among these folks. More sure needs to be done by society to break this vicious cycle.
I worked Cabrini Green as a police officer from 1973 through 1975 and I saw the horrible living conditions and the constant shooting from building to building that got so bad that our commander often pulled all police units out of the projects, especially when the welfare checks came out. Besides personally witnessing a teen being shot dead, I handled many heartbreaking crimes against old folks and children as I witnessed the horrors of living in the projects. Due to fear of reprisals, the residents didn’t cooperate with the police, thus the crime cycle survived.
Seeing this powerful show brought back memories for me of those thankless and dangerous time at Cabrini Green. We were only pawns in the government’s games. We lost as did the residents. Let’s hope this important oral history strikes a cord that will lead to positive solutions to these urban social problems. Letting everyone know exactly what and why this social experiment happened can be a first step. See this show, it’ll give you a new perspective on these complex issues. Kudos to the cast.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: May 7, 2015
For more info checkout the ‘THE PROJECT(S)’ page at theatreinchicago.com
At ATC, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago, IL, call 773-409-4125. https://atcweb.org, tickets $38-$48, Thursdays & Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with 2 intermissions, through June 21, 2015