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  WINDY CITY TIMES

THEATER 'A Blue Island in the Red Sea' tackles Chicago's racist history
Extended for the online edition of Windy City Times
by Catey Sullivan
2018-04-09

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Here's a piece of rarely taught Chicago history: Wrigley Field was built by one of the nation's foremost Ku Klux Klan ( KKK ) members.

Charles Weeghman built the field and named it after himself, opening it for baseball in 1914. Weeghman also organized the first KKK rally in Illinois, presiding over a crowd of some 12,000 Klansmen.

If you've never heard of Chicago's baseball-Klan connection, you aren't alone.

"I was stunned," says Collaboraction Theatre Artistic Director Anthony Moseley of learning Weegham's involvement in America's pastime and the Ku Klux Klan. "And then I was, like, 'Why aren't we taught this'?"

With A Blue Island in the Red Sea, Collaboraction presents a docudrama's worth of often hidden history. Going back to the Native American Potawatomi and continuing through the current revival of white nationalism, the production explores the legacy and the causes of racism in Chicago.

"This play opened my eyes," said cast member Shannon Leigh Webber. "For now, I feel like white people need to shut up and listen. We have a tendency to apologize and ask what we should do to be better. But it's not anybody's job to educate us on how to be better. We need to hear other peoples' stories. We need to listen."

Overt racism is hard to miss, Moseley said. Drive through food deserts and past the closed schools that mark some of the city's primarily African American neighborhoods, and it becomes clear that racism is alive and well, systemic and institutionalized and as much a part of the city's history as the Great Fire.

Chicago, Moseley added, pioneered the practice of red-lining in real estate, which effectively kept some neighborhoods off limits to anyone who wasn't white. In 1919, race riots lasted for a week after 17-year-old Eugene Williams was stoned to death for swimming in a "whites only" section of Lake Michigan. And in 1966, Martin Luther King told local reporters that "I have never seen—even in Mississippi and Alabama—mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I've seen here in Chicago."

For Collaboraction Managing Director Dr. Marcus Robinson, moving to Englewood after 13 years in Michigan was a ground-level way to effect change.

"I felt I should go where the pain was," Robinson said. "Most people try to leave areas like Englewood. I decided to swim against that tide. I feel like 99 percent of helping is showing up. That's what I'm trying to do. Going shoulder to shoulder with people who have lived their their whole lives here, trying together to have an impact."

Robinson's work with the Resident Association of Greater Englewood dovetails with his Collaboraction duties. With degrees in music and hypnotherapy, he's spent decades heading up organizations including The Consortium of Community Development and Citizens for ProgressiveChange, Inc. He's also the founder of the Social Innovation Group, which helps clients create inclusive cultures that yield optimal results and high work performance.

Theater can be an effective tool in fighting societal ills, Robinson said. "Theater provides us with the opportunity to learn, to have a deep introspection about issues that really matter. Things like post-show discussions or talkbacks, they can motivate people to activism," he said.

In its early stages, A Blue Island in the Red Sea was comprised of some 20 hours of rehearsal footage as the performers culled through facts, anecdotes and interviews to shape the story. Ultimately, Moseley and his cast came up with a two-act structure that tracks Chicago's history through the lens of a newly opened museum on racism.

"This idea that we're the friendly, jovial, progressive City of Big Shoulders—that's not accurate," Moseley said. "In the South, racism is overt. Here? We're not as obvious, and that's scary to me. It's this invisible thing that is in us. And by us, I mean me as well. As a loud, dare I say sometimes charming white man, I have had huge privilege in my life. And for years, I've been complicit in keeping it that way. My own family made a lot of money in Chicago real estate, because of their privilege. But once you see things, once you know, it's your responsibility to make change."

For Webber, that responsibility gets to the core of creating a drama that is at once utterly compelling and a call to action—or at least awareness.

"People say that theater is a hobby. Frivolous. Not important," Webber said. "But pieces like this? They are important. It's a powerful way to engage."

A Blue Island in the Red Sea runs April 12-May 20 in the Flatiron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are $15-$30 ( $5-$15 for students ); visit www.collaboraction.org .


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