J. Nicole Brooks’s adaptation of 1919, Eve L. Ewing’s collection of poems published a century after the “Red Summer” race riot in Chicago sparked by the murder of Eugene Williams, is the first live show since the pandemic for Steppenwolf for Young Adults. There are only a handful of public performances, but it should not be missed.
1919 Through 10/29: public performances Fri 10/14 7:30 PM, Sat 10/15-10/29 2:30 and 7:30 PM, Steppenwolf Ensemble Theater, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20
In some ways, Brooks’s piece (codirected by Gabrielle Randle-Bent and Tasia A. Jones) works similarly to Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down (running through this weekend with Congo Square at Lookingglass Theatre). One of Ewing’s poems from 1919, “I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store,” is part of the Lookingglass lobby display, and it’s one of the last pieces in Brooks’s collage of poems, stories, history, ritual, and movement exploring the legacy of racism and segregation in Chicago and beyond—the very forces that led to Williams’s drowning death when the 17-year-old Black boy floated on a raft across an invisible line in the water on a south-side beach, and was stoned by a gang of white people on the shore.
There are also echoes of Brooks’s own earlier work. Sola Thompson’s scholar/writer who is attempting to give form to Williams’s story (and that of so many others murdered by white supremacy) feels like a more grown-up version of the eager young student in Brooks’s intergalactic Afrofuturist HeLa from 2018. Identified as Humans 1 through 6, the ensemble is far from generic. They function as muses for Thompson’s writer who dubs them “the griever,” “the caregiver,” etc.
It’s a kaleidoscopic piece that resists the tyranny of linear narrative. You may not learn every fact about the 1919 riots (that’s what history books are for). But you may find a deeper sorrow and knowledge seeping into your bones, thanks to the hypnotic pull of this piece. It’s geared for younger audiences who are being told daily that frank discussion of America’s racist history is too “divisive.” I hope more audiences can see it soon.