“There is probably no emotion that plagues and crumbles the human personality more than that of fear,” writes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his sermon about fear. “Fear expresses itself in such diverse forms—fear of others, fear of oneself, fear of growing old, fear of change, fear of disease and poverty… fear of death.”
Dr. King’s powerful words are given form in “The October Storm” by Joshua Allen, directed by Malkia Stampley. The Raven Theatre is transformed into the basement apartment of a three-flat in the 1960s on the South Side of Chicago, where a Black grandmother works tirelessly to protect her home and granddaughter from a wave of change that threatens to destroy their peaceful lives. A hint in the program suggests the story takes place in the same building as Allen’s “The Last Pair of Earlies” set thirty years earlier, which premiered at Raven Theatre last October, with the final installment of the trilogy about twentieth-century Black families premiering next season.
You wouldn’t want to mess with Mrs. Elkins (Shariba Rivers), a landlord who runs her business with an iron fist. Her granddaughter, Gloria (Jaeda LaVonne), lives under her grandmother’s authoritarian thumb, but knows that it comes from a place of love, that she is doing her best to give her a good life after her mother, Mrs. Elkins’ daughter, took a trip to Woolworth’s sixteen years ago and never returned. But Gloria is not wanting for friends and family, with jovial neighbor, Lucille (Felisha D. McNeal), and bashful boyfriend, Crutch (Brandon J. Sapp), providing a consistent network of love and support.
But as a heavy October storm rages outside, winds of tumultuous change sweep through their lives. Army veteran Louis (Nathaniel Andrew) returns from the Korean war suffering from intense PTSD, and asks for a place where he can “lay low.” Mrs. Elkins gives him a chance, but may soon regret her decision. Gloria suffers from a crisis of identity when she uncovers a gift from her mother, who she imagines naively to be a wealthy socialite in Hollywood. Between Louis’ drunken flashbacks and Gloria’s teenage rebellion, it is all that Mrs. Elkins can do to keep her world from falling apart.
The narrative requires the audience to fill in much of the story themselves. Louis gets in trouble at work, but we are never told why. Something happens between him and Gloria, but we are never told exactly what. The play ends like a drop off a cliff, leaving bellies full of butterflies and heads full of questions. Instead, the focus is on the characters, each one an archetype, yet defined solidly by each actor. LaVonne is especially engaging, making cute faces after witty lines, her eyes sparkling with hope. Rivers plays the older woman made stoic and cruel to a tee, and her hardheartedness in the final moments will leave you with chills.
Fear of others, fear of oneself, fear of growing old, fear of change… In “The October Storm,” we are shown that an embrace of growth is synonymous with experiencing fear, and that we must take that leap even though it terrifies us.
“The October Storm” runs through June 25 at the Raven Theatre, 6157 North Clark. Tickets are $40. For students, active military and veterans, $15. (773)338-2177, raventheatre.com.