Bailiwick Repertory and the Chicago Theatre Company

You’re either part of the solution, Eldridge Cleaver said, or part of the problem. A Preliminary Inquiry Into the Methods Used to Create and Maintain a Segregated Society offers a plethora of problems but precious few solutions. In fact the only really optimistic thing about this production is the method of its creation. The text, a collage of commentary on American race relations, was assembled by its cast–two black women, two black men, two white men, and two white women–under the direction of white male New Yorker Clay Shirky and black female Chicagoan Tanya White. And the show is being produced by two theaters: the north side’s Bailiwick Repertory, whose core audience is mostly white, and the predominantly black-oriented Chicago Theatre Company on the south side, where the show reopens this weekend following its premiere last month at Bailiwick.

The resolutely balanced cooperation behind this production contrasts notably with the hostility and confusion that dominate the content, which ranges from the rhetoric of white racists and black militants to ingenuous pronouncements by politicians and pop singers. Much of it’s presented in random and chaotic fashion, inadvertently illustrating the murky misunderstanding that continues to bolster American-style apartheid. The result is instructive but irritating; despite the mass of statistics and other facts that fill this hour-long, intermissionless show, the overall effect is bewilderment. Problems, not solutions.

Indeed, the few suggestions of hopefulness that pop up are repudiated by blunt, sometimes sophomoric irony. The Carpenters’ sentimental ballad “We’ve Only Just Begun,” sung as the show’s opener, is delivered as a smug send-up of the interracial vocal group Up With People (the singers’ incongruously vulgar hip thrusts seem to embody every anxiety any white parent ever had about integrated education). The anthem “We Shall Overcome” is rendered with an air of near-despair. And a police training manual whose aim is to warn white cops against stereotyping blacks as criminals is acted out in a cartoonish, street-theater style that mocks blacks and whites, police and civilians alike.

Negative elements are given much more weight and credibility, though often they’re treated in an oddly impassive way. Amnesty International’s 1990 report charging the Chicago Police Department with tolerating the torture of prisoners receives ample airing: as one actor dispassionately speaks of beatings and electroshock, others dispassionately act out the events described. A similarly cool and affectless approach characterizes the actors’ recitations of various definitions of integration–as “the voluntary mixing of people of different races” and “the forced mixing of people of different races,” for example–and of a laundry list of facts and factoids about racial inequality: the incarceration rate of white males is 410 per 100,000, while the rate for black males is 3,109 per 100,000; one of every two black men will be arrested in their lifetimes; predominantly black Chicago police districts report 14 times more murders and rapes than predominantly white districts; black ghetto children watch an average of 77 hours of TV per week.

Juxtaposed with these statistics are quoted remarks whose impact derives as much from who made them as from what was said. A ringing diatribe against slavery turns out to be a draft paragraph that was deleted from the Declaration of Independence; an assurance that “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes” is attributed to Abe Lincoln; an analysis of why poor, fatherless boys turn to gang leaders for role models, passionately spoken by a black woman, turns out to be lifted from Dan Quayle’s Murphy Brown speech.

Significant and sometimes enlightening in themselves, these bits and pieces add up to less than the sum of their parts. As the title suggests, A Preliminary Inquiry offers raw data; it’s like leafing through a scrawled notebook from Racism 101. The material is in need of ordering, and important patches of information still need to be researched. Despite its focus on Chicago, for instance–there are several bitter references to the first Mayor Daley’s urban-renewal strategies–there’s no mention of Harold Washington’s landmark mayoralty or the resistance he faced from both white and black aldermen. And issues affecting Latinos, Asians, and American Indians have been almost completely ignored.

Yet there’s no questioning the serious purpose the eight-person ensemble–Sandy Borglum, Karl Gibson, Stacey Griffin, Chris Hogan, Tania Richard, Stephanie Scott, Rafer Weigel, and Carol Wilson–bring to their task, or the value of the project itself. Even with its flaws, A Preliminary Inquiry sticks its nose–and ours–into subjects almost no other local theater has dared to approach. Goodman Theatre’s Riverview offered a skewed near-fantasy of the city’s race relations 40 years ago. And other major venues, like Steppenwolf and Wisdom Bridge, have offered potent indictments of racism and poverty in South Africa and England, with hardly a hint of the problems just a few blocks from their doors. It’s been left to the little, low-budget Bailiwick and Chicago Theatre Company to ask audiences to consider the situation here and now.