Before it was a hit sitcom, ‘Two Twenty Seven’ was a play about Bronzeville in the 1950s

NBC changed Christine Houston’s play a lot to turn it into a television show. But she retained stage rights, and the original play is still performed. It has returned to the South Side for another run, at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation.

SHARE Before it was a hit sitcom, ‘Two Twenty Seven’ was a play about Bronzeville in the 1950s
The original 1977 cast of Christine Houston’s play, “Two Twenty Seven.” The third production directed by Houston is running at the eta theater in Grand Crossing until August 28.

A photo from the original 1977 cast of Christine Houston’s play “Two Twenty Seven.” The third production directed by Houston is running at the ETA theater in Grand Crossing until Aug. 28.

Courtesy of Christine Houston

Christine Houston wrote her play “Two Twenty Seven” while proving a point to her sons.

She had started attending college at age 42 because she wanted to show them that getting an education was important.

That’s how Houston, now 86, ended up at Kennedy-King College and writing the play that would become the NBC sitcom “227” in 1985.

Houston is believed to be the first Black woman to get a “created by” credit for a prime-time television show.

Houston, an author, professor and actress, has returned to those roots this summer, staging her original play at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. The show runs through Aug. 28.

Houston wrote the play for the Norman Lear playwriting contest at Kennedy-King — “never dreaming it would go anywhere,” she told the Sun-Times.

But she won first place and with it a trip to Los Angeles, where she wrote an episode of “The Jeffersons,” getting the attention of Marla Gibbs, one of the show’s stars.

Houston’s play, which premiered at Kennedy-King in 1977, was about her time growing up in Bronzeville in the 1950s. Her address then: 227 East 48th St.

Years later, NBC was looking for a show for Gibbs to star in and bought the television rights to Houston’s play.

NBC switched the setting to Washington, D.C., and the title from words to numerals.

But NBC didn’t switch a key fact. The name of Gibbs’ character, “Mary Jenkins,” was not changed. Oversight or accident, Houston said, it gave her the “created by” credit.

Houston said she eventually was hired to write for the show, at Gibbs’ insistence.

“She said, if I was talented enough to write a play, why couldn’t they bring me on as a writer?” Houston recalled.

Most of what Houston wrote in the “Two Twenty Seven” play was based on her childhood. The play centers around Mary Jenkins, the matriarch of the apartment building, and her relationships.

“I knew everybody in the building,” Houston said.

“I remembered them. I have a gift of a good memory. I tried to put them all in the play,” Houston said.

“The main plot is that sometimes people who have sight are blind,” she added. “In the play, a blind man sat and looked out the window day after day. He couldn’t see much. But he heard a lot.”

Houston, who teaches at Chicago State University, said her students encouraged her to do another run. Over the years, Houston has directed three productions of the play.

A production of “Two Twenty Seven” at Kennedy King College in 2014.

A production of “Two Twenty Seven” at Kennedy-King College in 2014.

Courtesy of Christine Houston

“A lot of my students are very surprised when they find out that I wrote (it) and that it was a play that was turned into a television series,” Houston said. “They said, ‘Why don’t you do the play again? So many people in Chicago don’t know that the show was based on a play written by a native Chicagoan.’”

Houston has since written other plays — one featuring Regina King, who later made her TV debut was on “227” — but loves to return to “Two Twenty Seven” because of its relatability.

“Everything I write has a theme and a message that I try to tell people about everyday life and everyday experiences. It’s always to entertain as well as inform,” she said.

Sheree Bynum is playing Mary Jenkins for the second time on “Two Twenty Seven.” She said while Mary is the self-appointed matriarch, the play is truly an ensemble where every character gets their moment.

“Mary gives it to you straight with no chaser, and not everyone can drink that,” Bynum laughed.

Bynum said she hopes Houston will contribute more of her ideas to movies and television, and have her own “red carpet moment.”

“When you get to a certain age, sometimes people feel like, ‘Oh, your time has gone,’” Bynum said. “But she is living proof that that is not true. As a middle-aged Black woman, she brought these characters to life based on people that she knew, and she brought it to life and made everyone fall in love with them.”

Anyone attending the play should leave their problems at the door and dive into the world Houston has created, Bynum said.

“The underlying heartbeat of the story, to me, is family,” she said. “We all know families are dysfunctional, but the subtext is, they still operate out of love. That’s the reason why some of the conversations happen — because someone cares so much for someone else that they get in their business.”

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