In A Blue Island in the Red Sea, the best intentions go badly awry | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

In A Blue Island in the Red Sea, the best intentions go badly awry 

An honest conversation gets buried in too many layers of contrivance.

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click to enlarge collab_blue_island_ensemble.jpg

Joel Maisonet

Hoo-boy. Good intentions pave a path off the deep end in Collaboraction's ensemble-derived season finale, which reenacts pivotal moments in Chicago's history of violence inflicted by whites upon people of color. A ten-person ensemble presents a living 4-D exhibit at the fictional Chicago Racism Museum, teaching and role-playing its way through a litany of flash points and milestones in the city's civil rights history, ranging from the 1919 race riots to Harold Washington's mayoral election to the uncovering of Chicago Police Department abuses at Homan Square.

Dual projections by video designers Liviu Passare and Parker Langvardt, set against parallel scrims by scenic designer Jose Manual Diaz-Soto, create a clever multimedia playing space that doubles as an effective educational tool for illustrating complex macroconcepts like redlining. The storytelling format chosenby director and creator Anthony Moseley, though, presents a unique acting challenge for his cast, who have to leapfrog from one horrific emotional climax to the next as if hitting the "random article" tab on Wikipedia.

Where things get truly egregious is in the first-act coda and metatheatrical second act. Having infiltrated the troupe and rehearsed until opening night, a white supremacist ensemble member—which . . . OK—guns down the museum director during a psych-out curtain call. Postintermission, the ensemble re-create their real-life day-one rehearsal of the (first-act) "museum piece," ice-breaker exercises and stage manager instructions included, where they collectively gawk at the conclusion and engage in a passionate discussion about the violent scene's merits. About 75 minutes in, we finally get an authentic, around-the-horn rundown of the cast's relationship to race as the performers each briefly discuss their family heritage and how their race conditions and informs different aspects of their day-to-day lives, but at that point, the conversation is wrapped in so many layers of contrivance that it's like a phyllo pastry of navel-gazing theatre.   v

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