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American Theater Company’s ‘Project(s)’ a vivid living history of Chicago’s public housing

During the past half century or so, “public housing” have become two of the dirtiest words in the vocabulary of this country’s big cities. Yet this sentiment is awash in contradictions. For although there were skeptics about this “urban experiment” from the very start, for some — at least in the early years — the promise of such housing was akin to a ticket to paradise.

What went so terribly wrong along the way? Or was the writing on the wall even before the first concrete block was laid in the ground? These are among the many crucial and provocative questions at the heart of “The Project(s),” the fascinating world premiere now at American Theater Company, where, it is worth noting, it is the third show in a row (following “The Humans” and “The Royale”) to receive a knockout ensemble production.

Conceived and directed by ATC’s gifted and audacious artistic director, PJ Paparelli, written by him in collaboration with Joshua Jaeger and featuring choreography and music by Jakari Sherman, “The Project(s)” homes in on the history of public housing in Chicago. And it explains how the city first embarked on the grand-scale demolition of seriously overcrowded slum neighborhoods that were the result of the mass migration of poor Southern blacks to jobs in the north, and the often artificial means used to separate the races.

Told with passion, and with admirably balanced viewpoints from at least three generations of residents — and enacted by a cast of eight that serves as one of the more phenomenal examples of “Chicago-style ensemble acting” — the show offers up no easy answers to the multifaceted problems (tied to race, housing, crime, broken families, poverty) that continue to plague this city, and many others. But it makes you think, and it makes you feel. And it should be required viewing for every politician (and presidential hopeful) now on the scene.

‘THE PROJECT(S)’

Highly recommended

When: Through June 21

Where: American Theater Company,

1909 W. Byron

Tickets: $43 – $48

Info: (773) 409-4125

www.atcweb.org

Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with two intermissions

In many ways, “Project(s)” adapts the hallowed oral history techniques developed by Studs Terkel, with most of its text based on interviews conducted with a wide array of residents, a scholar on the subject, and a police officer who was assigned to the beat during a particularly dangerous period. The ensemble, like the majority of the population that lived in public housing almost from the start, is entirely African American. But there is some clever color-blind casting involved here, too, with both an academic and cop who are white, but are played by black actors.

There is an almost ballad-like quality about the show, which unspools in three clearly defined acts, each punctuated by a thrilling finale. The first act looks at the ever-tightening confines of Chicago’s Black Belt, and what seemed like a progressive plan to replace slums with modern buildings. We hear from some of the original residents of low-rise projects and then see what happened with the construction of high rises that stretched over great sections of the city and resulted in intense concentrations of poverty.

Omar Evans and Kenn E. Head in “The Project(s)” at American Theater Company. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Omar Evans and Kenn E. Head in “The Project(s)” at American Theater Company. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

The second act homes in on the ever-burgeoning population of the poor and unemployed in the towers, their sense of isolation, the breakdown in “vetting” of residents, the explosion of gang culture and violence, and the physical deterioration of the housing stock. And it climaxes with the decision to raze most of the projects in favor of that concept euphemistically known as “scattered site housing.”

The third act explores the complex feelings of those who have been displaced, and who ended up in other parts of the city or nearby suburbs, where the problems have tended to repeat themselves even if the geography is different. Some express a surprising nostalgia (the projects were the only home many ever knew). Others note that change often turns into nothing but a variation on a theme.

Along the way — on William Boles’ minimalist set of cardboard boxes, folding chairs and a two-dimensional tower used as the screen for Michael Stanfill’s fine projections — there are many lovely, surprising riffs. In one, we hear about how residents of the isolated towers became entrepreneurial — setting up little candy stores or convenience stores stocked with toilet paper in their apartments, while others cooked Sunday dinners. It was not just a hard drugs economy, though of course that became a major evil.

While all eight actors play multiple roles, each has a primary character. Kenn E. Head is the wise nonagenarian who has seen it all. Penelope Walker is the stylish resident who lived in several projects and photographed them all with a keen eye. The ladylike Linda Bright Clay and the feisty Joslyn Jones play longtime friends who worked as organizers in the project they called home. Stephen Conrad Moore is the historian with a keen understanding and acerbic wit. Omar Evans is the cop who admits he felt like a sitting duck on his beat. AnJi White is the sassy representative of the hip-hop generation. And Eunice Woods is the shy poet with the luminous spirit.

It is Moore’s character who explains where we are now, and why, without ever simplifying matters. And then the eight actors join in a circle that suggests hope is still alive. Of course the rest of this story is still to be written.