Introducing his co-written musical about egregious racial violence, playwright Shepsu Aakhu cautioned his audience to at least stealthily unwrap our gum during the performance. The audience laughed comfortably as if with homey familiarity, the opening night having been attended by some alumni of Governors State University. His humor and retelling of how this passion project came to be, free of the moral instruction often rightly preceding topics of historic rage, enticed this writer, and seemingly the audience, into the immersive acts that followed. Aakhu, like his audience, gave the impression that he too intended to learn through his work.
A gritty section of 1919 Chicago is the setting—two apartment rooms on opposite ends of the stage, linked by clothes lines, and the race line in-between. Two WWI veterans, one Irish and cripple, the other Black, come home to their families. They enter with militaristic drumbeats and rigid uniforms enforcing composure. The Irishman, Connor Weir ( Ryan Huemmer), reenters the ethnic feud of his prewar home, passively and later forthrightly bemoaning the racist bomb-tossing rage of his brother. The Black man, Donald Lee Winters (Nathaniel Andrew) tells his wife of a France that treats Black men like brothers. Learning of the death of his child, he and his wife Marlene (C.C. Rios) join in a hugging lament. Yet, soft moments like this seem to have hardly begun before a song suggesting violence and turmoil upsets the peace.
Governors State University Center for the Performing Arts Roars with Strife and Solemnity
In Looking for Work whites and Blacks vie, stomping and shouting, for jobs just to feed their families. With hard throbbing percussion rhythms that bring the cast to full throttle emotions with their feet and bodies, the music and actors thrust us into economic urgency better than any history book could. The strife, like the music, is unceasing. Teenage Eugene Williams (Michaelyn Oby), struck dead by whites for accidentally floating past Lake Michigan’s racial line, lies on strobe-light waves to a solemn dirge of a song, the Ballad of Eugene Williams. Casmero Lazeroni (Brian Healy) is greeted by a young Black girl as he angelically announces Fresh fruit until rapid stabbings end him beside his cart full of produce.
We feel these multiple tragedies deeply. We offer sorrowful silence in place of applause.
Ida B. Wells (Melanie Victoria) at once informs us with journalistic precision of the tragedies of her time and bewails blues-style to raucous applause. Pin-striped Mayor Big Bill Thompson lists the segregated city sections in slick mayoral double-speak. United yet separate they are, he explains, with a refined cunning that gets a chuckle from viewers. The dynamic rhythmic banter between these two, in this writer’s opinion, compels a must-see ranking for this play, all in itself.
RED SUMMER is for all who want to know history at ground level. The music makes this sad chapter of our history immediate. The production gives us a full frontal experience of the tragedy, more deeply than any academic lesson could achieve.
C.C. Rios (Marlene)
Ryan Huemmer (Connor Weir)
Ashlea Woodley (Mam Weir)
Alexander Slade (Declan Weir)
J. Xavier (Dixon)
Michaelyn Oby (Eugene Williams, Josephine)
Melanie Victoria (Ida B. Wells)
Bob Sanders (Mayor Big Bill Thompson)
Michael J. Santos (Doyle)
Chloe Belongilot (Cora)
Lauren Wells-Mann (Vanessa)
Katherine Delicath (Liza)
Allison Feist (Athena)
Autumn J. Price (Baby)
Anthony Augustine (Piano Player)
Brian Healy (Casmero Lazeroni)
Marc A. Rogers (Beau Elliot)
Destin Lorde Teamer (Ensemble)
Dane Larson (Ensemble)
Jacque Bischoff (Understudy/Assistant Stage Manager)
Danelle Taylor (Understudy)
Andrew White (Playwright)
Shawn Wallace (Composer, Music Director)
Andrea J. Dymond (Director)
Nick Sandys (Fight Choreographer)
Andrea Wukitsch (Choreographer)
Chloe Belongilot (Choreographer)
Jessica Kuehnau Wardell (Set Design)
Brandon Wardell (Lighting Design)
Evelyn Danner (Costume Designer)
Abboye Lawrence (Media Design)
Desta Sound (Sound Design)
Lauren “LL” Lundy (Production Stage Manager)
Sean Neron (Technical Director)
Nic Dimond (Master Carpenter)
Thru September 25, 2022
Saturday, September 24 at 7:30pm
Sunday, September 25 at 2:00pm
University of Chicago and Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
1 University Dr., University Park, IL 60484
About the Author: Anthony Neri
An avid philosophizer and Dostoevsky fanboy, Anthony spends his time ruminating on very deep moral questions. Is he a genuine old soul or does he feign as much for the mystique?--perhaps a bit of both. When he isn't tormenting himself existentially, he reads fiction and translates ancient Greek and Latin texts, all the while developing his own literary flourishes with the hope of producing his very own dazzling prose. Cliche? Maybe. But he figures everyone starts out as a cliche.