Wanting to do right by our city means remembering its storied history. No place, especially places on this stolen, colonized land, is without its harrowing moments. We cannot escape that reality even when the shimmering skyscrapers beg us to do so. Whether you’ve been here for five or fifty years, when we stop speaking the names or scenes that have gone before, their histories can be lost to the ages. Or so it seems. Until a profound poet like Eve L. Ewing comes around, playing in part the role of Afrofuturist historian, to remind us that a century was not that long ago.
Ewing’s 2019 collection of poems, “1919,” dives deep into the archives of the 1919 Chicago Race Riots—the most noted moment of the country’s Red Summer. She embraces the everyday nuance of being a Black Chicagoan at the time while tracing out what led to the eight days of violence. The inciting incident? White beachgoers stoned to death a seventeen-year-old boy named Eugene Williams whose day on the lake with friends found troubled waters because their raft drifted too far into unofficially segregated Lake Michigan.
J. Nicole Brooks’ stunning adaptation of Ewing’s work transforms her illustrative poetry into equally conceptual, theatrical performance art. Further cementing the work’s humanity, the six cast members are simply known as Humans 1-6. We are reminded through their collective voices, breaths, movements and yearnings that giving voice to the lessons and names of yesterday will portend our future.
Very little scenery takes up space in Steppenwolf’s Ensemble Theater. What you are met with instead is a handful of crates, a typewriter and rings of bottles hanging from the ceiling. These bottles, which gather on the stage at times, are mostly blue. Reminiscent of the ancient art of bottle trees which are said to capture spirits within them, these bottle trees are meant to protect folks from evil. Yu Shibagaki’s simple, yet enthralling design is an ever-present reminder that we are never fully removed from the souls of those who have left us—or those who might do us harm.
Without more scenery to get in the way, the movement design of Meida McNeal and Abra Johnson gets ample room to shine. Each of the six ensemble humans is embodied through their own unique movement style, though they come together throughout the show in unison movement. These ensemble moments remind us that, even as our own people, we are part of something greater than ourselves.
“1919” represents a moment in Chicago’s timeline over a century ago which, as the text reminds us, really isn’t that long ago. More than that, it’s an examination of how much or little has changed for Black people in this city, state and nation. And for white folks, it’s a reminder to not be a not-so-innocent bystander in history, that silence is violence.
“1919” at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted, steppenwolf.org. Through October 29. $20-$30.