Playwright: PJ Paparelli ( also director ) and Joshua Jaeger. At: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St. Tickets: 1-773-409-4125; www.atcweb.org; $43-$48. Runs through: June 21
The Project( s ) will surprise you with what it has to say and the entertaining, compassionate way in which it's done. Still, it feeds its own stereotype ( see the end of this review ). The title refers both to public housing and to creating this show through extensive interviews with those whose lives have intertwined with subsidized housing in Chicago.
I already knew the horrors of Chicago slums going back to the 1880s, and I knew the 1960s Chicago City Council had rejected scattered-site, low-rise public housing in mixed-income neighborhoods. Here are some things I didn't know. Chicago public housing is nearly 80 years old. The original low-rise projects were racially-mixed housing for carefully-screened working poor, paying 30 percent of their income in rent. Self-governing councils within each project were substantially successful. Residents of the 1940s, 1950s and even into the 1960s viewed public housing as a godsend. The switch to high-rise public housing in the '60s was required to secure Federal dollars.
Critical change occurred in 1962 with the Robert Taylor Homes, a massive project housing 27,000 people. To fill it, the Chicago Housing Authority ( CHA ) leased apartments to welfare recipients for the first time, thereby decimating the rental income base necessary for proper upkeep. Also, 70 percent of the residents19,000were children. When those kids became adolescents, the breeding ground for gangsand gang control of specific projectswas created.
When the high-rise projects finally were torn down in recent yearsin favor of scattered-site, low-rise public housing, at lastthe carefully marked gang turfs were destroyed. Mixed like a jigsaw puzzle, rival gang members launched the new turf wars and drive-by shootings which plague Chicago now.
The great success of The Project( s ) is that it delivers all this in a way which is highly personal and involving, through the eyes, ears, words and music ( Jakari Sherman ) of those who were there ( and some still are ). We meet wonderful people: a 95 year old man whose grandmother was a slave, two life-long best friends and housing council leaders, a photographer and teacher for whom the projects were home, a passionate expert on public housing. All characterseven several white onesare played by a versatile and personable ensemble of eight African-American actors, most with a few years on them which adds to their credibility and warmth.
Still, The Project( s ) states early-on that public housing has become negatively synonymous with Black culture and then proves the point. It might diffuse this issue by including some early white residents ( if still around ) and current non-Black residents ( and there must be some ). The play scoffs at the CHA but wisely doesn't make it the Great Satan, which would be too easy and not really accurate.