American Theater Company asks-- “What does it mean to be American?”
This question appears on a lot of ATC’s materials. Their mission: to challenge and inspire the community by exploring stories that answer that ask, “What does it mean to be American?” In his pre-show speech, Will Davis gave some context behind the Youth Ensemble, and how this program is one of the proudest achievements of the theater. After witnessing their performance of THE PROJECT(S) and hearing the students talk about their experience, it seems that this year’s cohort of ensemble members lived up to the expectations.
Short History of THE PROJECT(S)
Originally written by late ATC Artistic Director PJ Paparelli and ATC Artistic Associate Joshua Jaeger, THE PROJECT(S) is a documentary play about public housing. The project began in 2009 when The Chicago Community Trust commissioned Paparelli and the theater to write the piece. After a series of interviews with current and former residents of public housing, city officials, and scholars, the play eventually premiered in its full, three-act form in 2015.
Later in 2015, The Chicago Community Trust further supported ATC to create a condensed version that could easily educational tour throughout the city along with a curriculum from the National Public Housing Museum. ATC Artistic Programs Manager Sarah Slight, who also acted as dramaturg on the original production took on the re-write, along with Jess McLeod, the resident director for Hamilton. The abridged version has toured to four Chicago Public Schools and two conferences so far, and most recently, became the culminating project for the 2017 class of the ATC Youth Ensemble.
American Theater Company Youth Ensemble presents THE PROJECT(S)
Directed by Monty Cole, the production showcases the talents of the 12-actor youth ensemble, and shares the stories of those that Paparelli and Jaeger originally interviewed. Double casting allows the actors to share the full range of narratives, and also creates excellent opportunities for each young actor to have a moment to lead the action.
The writing is powerful, creating a window into how these individuals survived in the harsh conditions of public housing. Paparelli and Jaeger certainly include the unfortunate truths of the projects, such as the tight spaces, poverty, crime, and even rape that existed behind those enclosed walls. However, perhaps its strongest element is that the writers also include the positive sides. Yes, the public housing conditions were less than ideal, but they also provided a strong sense of community, and this balance in the story allows the audience to learn from the complexities of the issue.
Throughout the piece, the ensemble switches between forms of storytelling, from straight dialogue to narration, and even a combination of the two. These moments were fascinating to watch unfold, and allowed Cole to get creative with the staging.
In some key moments, Cole place a few actors closer to the front of the stage. These actors play the “present” moment – the individuals who Paparelli and Jaegar are interviewing, and sharing their stories from their time in public housing. Behind these actors is the rest of the ensemble, playing out the interactions.
Scenic Designer Eleanor Kahn created a multi-layer structure that acts as the high-rise housing establishment. The structure is small – which emphasizes the close quarters that is described in the story. When the actors downstage share their memories, we see “younger versions” of themselves, playing out the dialogue. Not only is this a creative use of space, but Cole also helps the audience see the different time periods that are occurring within the piece.
Ensemble Features Broad Range of Talents
Cole further adds to production by utilizing the full breadth of strengths in this ensemble – including music. At the very start of the piece, Latrel Crawford sings acapella – describing the public housing and creating a small introduction for the story about to unfold. His voice is beautiful, and the vibrato rings throughout the intimate space. In addition, the singing plays to the balance that Paparelli and Jaeger so successfully embrace in their play – while the projects have some awful truths within their history, there is also some good.
In addition to the beautiful, almost angelic music, Cole also includes the opposite. Along with Choreographers Jakari Sherman and Breon Arzell, the artistic team utilizes a repetition of rhythmic clapping and stomping. At key moments, the ensemble would repeat the same phrase in unison, and along with the drumming, the tension of the story would rise.
At one point the ensemble makes a pyramid at the front of the stage and in unison begins clapping and stomping. Then the ensemble begins moving up and down to the rhythmic storm. The effect was that of a heartbeat, almost as if they were the beating heart of the projects.
This play represents honest accounts of living in public housing, and this moment of music helped emphasize the heartbreaking truth of those stories.
Honest and intriguing, THE PROJECT(S) is a story that must be told.
Through July 23, 2017
Friday, July 21 at 8:00pm
Saturday, July 22 at 8:00pm
Sunday, July 23 at 2:00pm
Run Time: 60 minutes, no intermission.
American Theater Company
1909 W Byron St.
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.