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Playwright Joshua Allen (center) greets family at Raven Theater during a performance of his new play The Prodigal Daughter. This is the third and final play in his Grand Boulevard trilogy about Chicago’s Red Summer of 1919.

Sam Varley-Stephens for WBEZ

For ‘Empire’ and ‘Morning Show’ writer Joshua Allen, the big test is a new play in Chicago

The television writer has returned to Chicago with the third installment of a trilogy about the Red Summer of 1919.

The Edgewater theater is as dark as the drama. As The Prodigal Daughter brings its tale of Chicago’s 1919 race riots to its powerful close, the sold-out audience takes a collective breath as the lights come up.

This is a unique crowd. The playwright, Joshua Allen, is there. So are his aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents and Allen’s own mother, Lynda Forte, and they are all on their feet with a standing ovation. The family has bought out nearly the entire theater — so much that extra seats have been added to accommodate them — and, to Allen, their feedback matters. His play takes place on the South Side and unfolds in front of an audience that has the most authentic perspective possible.

“I’m a proud fourth-generation Chicagoan,” said Allen, whose grandmother had 10 siblings. Allen, who lived in Chatham and then Jeffery Manor, grew up with 52 first cousins.

What can only be described as a Hollywood success story, Allen has returned to Chicago for the world premiere of Prodigal Daughter. His television credits include Empire, the Jennifer Aniston-fronted Apple TV+ series The Morning Show and In Treatment. And while he has found success in television, this night at Raven reminds him that his biggest fans — and some of his most interesting stories — are still right here where he grew up.

Joshua Allen The Prodigal Daughter at Raven Theatre

Allen’s family sells out a performance of The Prodigal Daughter at Raven Theatre in May.

Sam Varley-Stephens for WBEZ

In fact, as the actors leave the stage, a woman seated next me, one of Allen’s relatives, turns and whispers,“Intermission already?” I tell her the play is over.

The 85-minute one-act — the third in Allen’s Grand Boulevard Trilogy — zips by, yet it still packs a powerful dose of family drama, secrets and revelations. The story unfolds in a 16-hour snippet of the fictional Bass family’s life on the South Side of Chicago in the midst of the Red Summer in 1919. In real life, that’s the infamous Chicago summer when a young Black boy, Eugene Williams, swam into an area of Lake Michigan customarily used by whites. He was stoned and drowned. In the aftermath, 13 days of riots ended with more than 30 fatalities, 500 injuries and 1,000 Black families left homeless.

After the show, the lobby floods with 80 of Allen’s relatives all wearing custom T-shirts designed by his aunt, Pam, that commemorate his trilogy. Most people in the room have seen all three plays. A select few, his aunt Pam and his mom, have seen a couple productions more than once. Aunt Pam has even made golden gift bags containing treats, such as a Prodigal Daughter branded bag of gourmet popcorn. She made 80 for the family, 10 for Raven Theatre staff and seven for the cast.

“I didn’t have kids until I was a little older, so when Joshua was born, he was like my kid,” says “Aunt Pam,” whose given name is Pamela Nelson-Peevy. “Anything he did, I always had to do something extra for him. So when he had his first play, me and my sister were talking and decided we had to give people something like a keepsake after the play. And then it just kind of grew from there.”

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Allen greets family members before the show, which is the third in a trilogy.

Sam Varley-Stephens for WBEZ

Allen navigates the sea of smiles, custom T-shirts and glimmering gift bags, then slips back into the empty theater to reflect on the production. It’s one of the final previews, and the show will open to the press soon — a heady moment for any playwright with a new work. Earlier in the process, Allen said writing for the stage is still special. It has an intimacy that doesn’t come with writing for television — his words actually make it to the production as is. That’s unlike writing for TV, when exponentially more hands touch scripts. Is this production everything he intended?

“It was our last opportunity to adjust the show, give notes and adjust the performance,” Allen says. “So it was nice to have my family here for that because, you know, some of them have feedback. And there’s still time to implement that feedback.”

One nugget of feedback comes from his mom, Lynda Forté, who said, “I really, really enjoyed it. The only thing is I wish it was longer. I wanted more. When it was over, we were all like, ‘We not ready to go home. That can’t be it.’ ”

Joshua Allen poses with his mother

Playwright Joshua Allen poses with his mother, Lynda Forté, after the showing of The Prodigal Daughter at Raven Theatre.

Sam Varley-Stephens for WBEZ

Allen’s roots in theater go back to his days attending Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep on 111th Street. He first tried his hand at acting in his English teacher’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire playing the role of Steve Hubbell. Allen vividly remembers a scene where he had to slap his friend, who played the role of Eunice, and his first taste of onstage combat.

“I actually hauled off,” Allen joked. “Nobody taught us how to do it. We were 15 years old. So I actually slapped her! I was like, ‘I’m not cut out for this. I need to do the typing, not the slapping.’ ”

Joshua Allen portrait

For Allen, a Chicago native who now lives in Los Angeles, writing for theater provides an intimacy that isn’t found in television scripts.

Sam Varley-Stephens for WBEZ

When Allen entered the undergraduate program at the University of Southern California, he originally intended to be a cardiologist. But after struggling with science, he shifted his major to acting. At this time, he remembers his mother telling him he would spend a third of his life working, so he should “do something that doesn’t feel like work.”

Still, after graduating with an acting degree, professional acting didn’t turn out how he had hoped. “After a particularly demoralizing audition, I was like, ‘You know what? Actors make good writers sometimes. Let me try my hand at that.’ Because you can do this at 2 a.m. in your pajamas.”

His writing career for television has kept him in Los Angeles, but theater still pulls him to Chicago. Raven has produced all three plays in his trilogy, with the first installment, The Last Pair of Earlies, being staged in 2021.

After concluding his trilogy in a room filled with family, I ask, “Is this it? Will he now disappear back into Hollywood?”

With a smile, Allen tells me, “I’ll disappear into Hollywood again. Because I have a mortgage. But, no, theater cannot get rid of me.”

If you go: The Prodigal Daughter runs through June 22 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets from $45 ($15 for students).

Mike Davis is WBEZ’s theater reporter.

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