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A couple months ago, we received a brochure from the Lookingglass Theatre. Jim and I both wanted to see their production based on Studs Terkel's book Race, and later in the season they're doing an original play about The Shaggs. So we thought, what the hell? Let's subscribe and support another local independent theatre company! It seems so grown-up.

Last night, we saw Race, which was similar in style and substance to the Neo-Futurists' Emmett Project earlier this year, although the two shows must have been developed independently of each other. Both combine historical narrative and reenactments with the actors' own experiences of race in America. Both were often intense and moving, but occasionally detached and clinical. And both were loosely structured around the 1955 lynching of 14-yr-old Emmett Till, the Chicago boy who was killed in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Till's story bookends Race, and in the middle are vignettes and character studies, in the words of Terkel's interviewees, about the many facets and faces of racism in America -- the disillusioned white cop, the Jewish kid whose best friend joins the Nation of Islam, the Japanese woman whose parents were interned, the white single mom on welfare who loses her nursing-school scholarship because it's been reassigned for Hispanics only, and -- in the show's longest and most fully realized piece -- the lumbering Klansman and the wary black activist who realize they have a common enemy and join forces to integrate their local school. Interspersed between these segments are shorter skits about riding the El ("This is Belmont. This is a Purple Line express, so most black folks should be off the train by now"), race hierarchies among Latinos, and a game show called "Name that Stereotype." The performances are uniformly wonderful, but the play as a whole just doesn't quite come together. There's an overall vibe of hopelessness, that shit is fucked up in so many different ways we'll never be able to fix it.

The director (yes, that guy) seems to want to show a continuum between the lynching of Till and the depressing statistics facing modern black males -- incarceration rates, institutionalized racism, increasing suicides -- which you could certainly make a case for. But I think he misses an important opportunity to draw everything together. At the start of the play, as Mamie Till Mobley is describing what happened to her son, she leaves the stage saying she will show us pictures of him before we leave. When she returns near the end, this promise is forgotten. Which is a shame, because Mobley's insistence on showing the world the effects of lynching by holding an open-casket funeral for her bloated, mutilated son -- the force of those images -- spurred the start of the civil rights movement in the late '50s. Maybe showing those pictures would have better illustrated the relevance of framing this play around a 50-yr-old crime.

So, anyway, it was flawed, but if you get a chance to see it, you should go. The actors are stellar, and there's plenty to think about.

Replies: 1 Confession

The Tribune site Metromix has an interesting review, and a lengthy discussion of how difficult it is to find the entrance to the theatre in their new space in the Water Tower building (the actual water tower, not the Water Tower shopping mall across the street). I dunno, I was able to find it just fine last night, even in the driving rainstorm that started right around rush hour.

Another funny thing about the theatre: their waiting room has two large Sony flatscreen TVs mounted on the walls, playing various clips from previous Lookingglass productions. Sort of has a Las-Vegas-hotel-room-cable-channel-preview feel to it, as you see the Lookingglass' finest moments. And then there's a 10 minute video showing the repertory cast doing a photo shoot in a Northwestern U. swimming pool. Quite cool and fun to watch, while waiting for the theatre to open up.

Also: Tony Fitzpatrick as the Klansman was just excellent. He looked like Peter Boyle's lost brother (or possibly Kyle Gass), and had that Carolinian accent down good.

jima @ 07/18/2003 11:49 AM CST

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