On Stage: apartheid American style | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: apartheid American style 

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Clay Shirky, associate member of the Wooster Group and founding member of the New York-based Hard Place Theater, is clearly a man who loves stirring things up. In his last theater piece, Excerpts From the Attorney General's Report on Pornography, which Hard Place performed in conjunction with Bailiwick Repertory and City Lit Theater last summer, Shirky took a flawed, biased, lacunae-filled government-commission report--a text many doubted could have been translated to the stage--and transformed it into a fascinating, intelligent, entertaining, and infuriating piece of theater that examined the subject of pornography (and the commission's assumptions) more thoroughly than the commission itself did.

This year Shirky, in residence at the Bailiwick, collaborated with the Chicago-based African American director Tanya White on a piece provocatively entitled A Preliminary Inquiry Into the Methods Used to Create and Maintain a Segregated Society. Like Excerpts, this piece is a nonnarrative work that incorporates a collage of disparate texts, a panoply of contradictory voices, jokes and opinions, commission reports, black-power raps, and right-wing ravings. The resulting rich, theatrical tapestry aims to deconstruct the issue of race relations in America in general and Chicago in particular. And like Excerpts, A Preliminary Inquiry leaves no sacred cow ungored. Liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, multiculties and neoconservatives alike will all find something to hate in this show.

"This piece upsets everybody," Shirky says, a faint smile flickering across his face. "It even upsets us sometimes, too."

"We knew from the beginning," adds White, "that this was not going to be about holding hands and singing 'Everything is beautiful.'"

"Smile on your brother," Shirky interjects, his voice dripping with irony.

"Yeah, right," White laughs. "Like all we have to do is relax and get happy, and all get together and everything will be fine."

"Chicago's the most segregated city in the country," Shirky says matter-of-factly. "And the fourth most violent city in the country. People in the white community have to acknowledge those things as true. Racism is so systematic that any time a group gets together in this city, racist forces are at work."

So how did a nice middle-class white boy raised in Columbia, Missouri, educated at Yale University, currently living in New York City, become interested in race relations in Chicago?

The germ of the project goes back to '87. "I was watching Rock Against Racism in '87 or '88. The stage was filled with blacks and whites jamming together and making beautiful music. Then the camera panned out over the audience. Every single face in the audience was white. You could count the blacks in the audience on two hands. I suddenly realized that many whites get very upset about the fact that there is apartheid," he stretches his arm across the table, "way over there in Af-ric-cahhh. But whites don't think of themselves as living in segregated cities here."

Last August, when Excerpts was playing at Bailiwick, Shirky approached executive director David Zak about creating a show built around Amnesty International's 1990 report on police brutality in Chicago. Zak liked the idea but confided that he had problems with having a white director come to Chicago from New York to do a piece about segregation.

So Zak introduced Shirky to local writer and director Tanya White, and the two agreed to work together. So far the collaboration has gone well.

"We think very differently," Shirky notes, "but we found a way of working together. I love to listen to words. I could give my actors the phone book and listen to them read. And my rehearsals in New York are just sort of piles of paper, piles of paper, read this, read that, now while you're reading this, read that. Tanya's like, 'Everyone get up on your feet. I don't know what we are going to do yet, but everyone up on your feet. Oh, we're missing something here, we'll find that later.' And I'm, 'Find that later?'"

White says, "Clay will take risks where I wouldn't think of it. I take the emotional risks and Clay takes the structural and technical risks. He'll take something and lay four different things on top of each other. I'll go, 'Clay, nobody's going to hear this.' And he'll go, 'Oh, OK.' On the other hand, I work too indirectly. I'm used to being totally collaborative with actors. And Clay will say, 'You better just tell them what to do.' And he'll be right!"

When asked what he likes best about his current project, Shirky says, "You almost never see anything discussed onstage that isn't already being discussed in the culture. That is what is most radical about this project. That and the fact that this is political theater but it isn't ideological. We don't have any answers. The questions are much more theatrical than the answers."

Shirky pauses a moment, and White continues his thought: "Things just aren't resolved. People in the cast hate it."

Then Shirky caps the thought: "We're not offering a message of hope here. Got any suggestions?"

A Preliminary Inquiry Into the Methods Used to Create and Maintain a Segregated Society will open at Bailiwick Repertory Monday, August 17, and run through August 30 at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont. On September 3 it moves to the Chicago Theatre Company, 500 E. 67th Street, where it will run through September 20. Show times at both venues are 8 PM Thursday through Saturday and 7 PM Sunday; admission costs $10. Call 327-5252 for tickets and details.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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