American Theater Company’s long in-the-works documentary-style play about the high-rise and fall of Chicago’s housing projects starts rather worryingly, with a solemn group recitation of the lyrics to the theme song from the ’70s family sitcom Good Times, which was set in a CHA project. It’s not a promising harbinger for the tone of The Project(s)’ treatment of its subject. Fortunately, it’s not an accurate one, either.
Based on five-plus years’ worth of interviews with residents of projects including Cabrini-Green, Wentworth Gardens, Ida B. Wells Homes and Robert Taylor Homes, as well as South Side historian and activist Timuel Black and Roosevelt University professor D. Bradford Hunt, the author of several books on urban planning and public housing in Chicago, The Project(s) takes a broad view of the Chicago Housing Authority’s history, peppered with evocative anecdotal details from those who lived it. (Shepsu Aakhu’s Speaking in Tongues: The Chronicles of Babel, seen at MPAACT in 2011, took a similarly interview-based approach to the CHA, but homed in on the story of a single family in the Washington Park Homes.)
The first of the play’s three acts could borrow the title of one of Hunt’s books, When Public Housing Was Paradise; the second roughly corresponds to another: Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing. The final act covers the aftermath of the wrecking ball. Eight African-American actors each play multiple recurring characters (including the play’s two white characters: Hunt, nicely embodied by Stephen Conrad Moore, and a cop assigned to the projects, played with a Bill Swerski’s Super Fans–style accent by Omar Evans).
Kenn E. Head is uncanny as Black; Linda Bright Clay and Joslyn Jones delightfully incarnate a pair of resident organizers. The show is greatly helped by its smart use of projections (designed by Michael Stanfill) to illustrate the histories both political and personal, drawing from the archives of the CHA, Chicago History Museum and a photographer interviewee, played by Penelope Walker.
Playwrights PJ Paparelli and Joshua Jaeger might have edited out a few of the seeming dozens of instances of interview subjects talking about the future play itself, which taken en masse edges on indulgently self-referential. But The Project(s) is ultimately an affecting and effective overview of a grand project gone wrong.
American Theater Company. By PJ Paparelli and Joshua Jaeger. Directed by Paparelli. With Linda Bright Clay, Omar Evans, Kenn E. Head, Joslyn Jones, Stephen Conrad Moore, Penelope Walker, AnJi White, Eunice Woods. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; two intermissions.