MPAACT and Steppenwolf both take on Chicago's history of segregation

October 3, 2011

Do you know about the new show in town addressing the causes and consequences of Chicago's persistent racial segregation? No, not Clybourne Park, though Bruce Norris's Pulitzer prizewinner does so brilliantly. But while the Steppenwolf production bathes in well-deserved praise, attention must be paid to MPAACT's Speaking in Tongues: The Chronicles of Babel, the new play by Shepsu Aakhu. This oral history of a family living in the now-demolished Washington Park housing project, directed by Andrea Dymond, isn’t just another take on the impact of housing policy on people’s lives. It’s another take on the impact of housing policy **in Woodlawn** on people’s lives.  (While Clybourne Park is ambiguous about its location, referring indiscriminately to streets on the North and West Sides, A Raisin in the Sun to which it pays homage is clearly about Woodlawn, the neighborhood playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s father helped to integrate.) And yet Speaking in Tongues isn’t at all redundant.

In Clybourne Park, the issue is the changing color of homeownership--from middle-class white to working-class black and back 60 years later. But Speaking in Tongues examines a different system for keeping black people away from whites, in this case, the CHA's decision to build high-rise public housing in communities that were already all-black . 

The most interesting observation in Speaking in Tongues comes from Trisha, the daughter who left Washington Park as one might flee a toxic waste dump, toward a college education and a completely different existence. Trisha (sharply portrayed by Shariba Rivers) points out that "project" is another word for "experiment," as in "the Manhattan Project." No one knew what would happen when the first A-bomb was detonated, and likewise no one knew what would happen when they packed 2200 poor people into a single square block.  They just did it, and then stood back to watch what happened. Whether or not the comparison she makes to the infamous Tuskegee Experiments is justified, her point is well-taken, and it's taken up again in the final moments of the play. The excellent Andre Teamer as Michael, whose upbringing at Washington Park led him ultimately to prison, notes that in 2009 construction began on low-rise mixed-income housing on the same site. People chosen to move into these new units are excited at the opportunity, just as the first residents of Washington Park were; but once again, no one knows what will happen. 

The structure of Clybourne Park seems designed to suggest the truth of Karl Marx’s observation that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. By contrast Speaking in Tongues suggests that history repeats itself only in being completely unpredictable.   

Speaking in Tongues’ title refers to the residents of the Tower of Babel, whose hubris in trying to build a structure so tall it could touch God was punished by their being deprived of a common tongue, forever condemned to misunderstand each other. There’s hubris in the story of Chicago housing, all right, but the people who deserve to be punished are not those who lived there but those who built it.

It's interesting to consider whether this two-show trend of talking about Chicago's history of segregation was made possible by the retirement of Mayor Daley, who did nothing about housing segregation while he was mayor and had a family interest in defending what was done about it while his father was mayor. Doubtless both playwrights were well on their way to finishing before the Daley-Emanuel transition, but it's worth noting that issues long suppressed are once again being discussed.

These two shows remind us that segregation is a problem, and that it's our problem. Next step is for someone in authority (can you hear me, Mayor Emanuel?) to think seriously about how to address it. Theatre may propose, but only politicians can dispose.