At first it seems odd to see this slice of Chicago oral history by Studs Terkel on the wildly western set of The Ballad of Little Jo. But his 33-year-old collage of interviews on the subjects of racism, alienation, and renewal creates its own world. Steve Totland’s adaptation preserves the fluidity of Terkel’s book, and Curt Columbus’s staging conveys the divisions that afflict more than one street, effectively indicting the unkept promises of the 20th century with testimony about Chicago’s jim crow segregation, the glory days of Jane Addams Hull-House, and the “ban the bomb” and civil rights movements. This may be a time trip, but we always feel we’re in the present tense. There’s undiminished power in activist Florence Scala’s anguish at seeing beautiful west-side trees uprooted to make way for the ugly University of Illinois campus, which destroyed the vibrant Harrison-Halsted neighborhood. Flamboyant mob enforcer Kid Pharaoh is re-created in all his punk arrogance: praising Mao Tse-tung, he declares, “There are no flies in Peking.” A Lake Forest matron extols the civil rights movement (she and her friends make “field trips” to visit “Negroes”) but objects to the “tastelessness” of lying down in the street to be dragged off by cops. The eight cast members personify from the inside out the lonely losers who become neo-Nazis and the schoolkids who fantasize about better teachers, evoking a city that, as one witness says, “invites audience participation.” Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650. Through October 21: Saturdays, 11 AM. $10.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephanie Howard.