Pegasus Theatre Chicago in association with ShPIeL Performing Identity presents moving Jim Crow era drama
“The Green Book” was a travel guide published by Victor Green between 1936-1967 that provided information for safe passage for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era throughout the United States. The guide assisted travelers in finding establishments where they would not be refused service, harassed, or worse. It was a necessity for many people at that time and the inspiration behind this play.
The intimate space at Chicago Dramatists, in addition to the detailed and realistic set design by Nick Schwartz immediately transports us into the Davis family’s home. Most of the action takes place in their home and we feel as though we have a seat in their living room. The costuming by Uriel Gomez showcases a vibrant use of color and, coupled with the set and music choices by sound designer Devonte Washington, we are in the ‘50s. The hyperrealism is highly effective at putting us in that world and make the few moments in which the realism is broken even more impactful.
The Green Book, written by Calvin A. Ramsey, and directed by Producing Artistic Director Ilesa Duncan, follows the Davis family, a black family living in Missouri during the 1950s who open up their home to black travelers. Dan (Henri Watkins) and Barbara (Stacie Doublin) Davis as well as their daughter, Neena (Demetra Drayton), are preparing for the arrival of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois for a lecture during which time we meet various guests staying with the Davis’s including Cpt George Smith (Terence Sims) and his wife Jacqueline (Quenna Lené) as well as a young salesman, Keith (Malcom Banks). The arrival of Jacob Levinsky (Michael Stock), a Jewish Holocaust survivor, causes emotions to run high and brings the social issues of the day even more to the forefront.
The tension builds throughout the first act as we see Barbara and Dan fearful of Neena’s looming departure to an out-of-state college. Neena’s desire for escape and independence in a segregated world, the Smith’s anxieties over traveling through the south and Keith’s conflict in choosing personal gain over fighting for civil rights roil together in this story. While the first act provides a sense of the current climate through the dialogue, the second act makes the horrors of the day even more real. Jake’s arrival shakes things up even more as we learn why he has chosen to stay with the Davis family instead of one of the segregated hotels. The violence of the time becomes more palpable and, frankly, gave this writer goosebumps. We are given reprieve from the tension through a number of comedic moments throughout the play, which also serves to show humankind’s incredible capacity for hope and happiness despite past and ongoing trauma.
A gripping ensemble
This is an excellent ensemble piece in which every character is as important and engaging as the one before. In Neena, deftly brought to life by Drayton, we see hope for the youth and the future. With Lené’s powerhouse portrayal of the complex Jacqueline we see a woman initially standoffish and displaced eventually opening up and embracing community. Overall, Duncan’s cast was stellar --the entire ensemble felt very familial, supportive and connected.
A timely production
Perhaps this piece contains an immense amount of historical information that occasionally can feel overly expository, as it did to this writer.. Overall though Duncan’s skillful hands do not sanitize our not so distant past and challenges us to work to be better today. Though The Green Book takes place over 60 years ago, the issues explored in Ramsey’s compelling work are still poignant and important in today’s climate. Exploration and understanding of the deep and painful history and continued legacy of racism and anti-Semitism is vital as these issues are still very much around today.
The Green Book will stay with you and leave you feeling hopeful and inspired.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Playing through April 1st
Thursdays at 7:30 pm
Fridays at 7:30 pm
Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 3:00 pm and 6:00 pm
Run time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
765 N. Aberdeen
Chicago, IL 60642
About the Author
Taryn Smith graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago's BFA Performance program in 2011. After graduating, she co-founded Realize Theatre Group and served as Executive Director for the company. She has filled numerous roles while with RTG both on and off stage including making her playwriting debut with her play America, Inc . She has worked as a stage manage, designer, director, and actor. Outside of the theatre world, Taryn is a licensed massage therapist.