It is hard for me to truly express just how much I miss covering live theater in Chicago. While there have been digital theatrical offerings over the past few months (and some have been excellent), they trend more toward prerecorded radio plays and artsy short films. Do not get me wrong, I’ll take what I can get. But Stage Left Theatre‘s latest production, livestreaming through November 26, is here to remind us that there is no true substitute for the sheer power of live entertainment.
Presented in a live Zoom format, “the project(s)” is a documentary-style play by the late creative talent PJ Paparelli and Joshua Jaeger. Directed by Christian Helem, “the project(s)” follows a reporter’s attempt to gain insight into the lives of residents of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Housing Projects. Paparelli and Jaeger’s script draws from interviews with former residents of the massive Bronzeville development that stretched from Pershing to 54th—for a time the largest public housing development in the country.
The three-act production begins on an optimistic note, with recently arrived African American tenants viewing the towers as a welcoming alternative to squalid slums. Prospective residents had to first complete a lengthy interview process, which fostered an entrepreneurial spirit in the new community. Many of the residents relate how each unit had their own “candy lady” who would sell or give treats to the children. The stories become increasingly personal and painful, many involving the sudden loss of fathers to death or abandonment.
Among the many voices featured is Dr. Bradford Hunt (Christopher Wayland), a self-described suburban white guy and a historian who has studied Chicago’s public housing history. His character provides context that guides the second part, when residents see their housing in increasingly bleak terms. Painful memories are shared, including the tragic murder of five-year-old Eric Morse. The residents also begin to view the Chicago Housing Authority as more of an obstacle than a partner. This view is ultimately vindicated when the twenty-eight high-rise buildings, with over 4,400 units, are condemned without resident input.
The final act interviews serve as a post-mortem. The project has been leveled and only those residents with good credit and without felony convictions are allowed to rent in the new mixed-income replacement housing. These long-term residents live alongside upwardly mobile new neighbors as second-class citizens, the only ones not allowed to barbecue and who are frequently tested for drugs by the CHA.
The highest compliment I can pay director Christian Helem and his very talented cast is that I found myself midway through the production forgetting that I was at home watching from my couch. There were, of course, the usual Zoom glitches that plague pretty much every virtual experience. But these minor technological mishaps reminded me that the play was in fact live, a raw organic experience that would never be presented in exactly the same way again.
Through November 26 (the final performance is prerecorded). Tickets at stagelefttheatre.com or call (773)883-8830. Pay what you can.