The Love Song of Saul Alinsky

Terrapin Theatre

at the Blue Rider Theatre

It’s tough to say what famed Chicago political activist Saul Alinsky might have had in common with the discontented, dyspeptic narrator of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The radical organizer’s righteous anger doesn’t exactly jibe with Prufrock’s almost ethereal detachment. Yet Tony-nominated playwright Herb Schapiro, who collaborated on the musical The Me Nobody Knows, draws on the text and style of Eliot’s work to tell the story of self-described radical realist Alinsky–a tenuous parallel symptomatic of a play with ambitions beyond its capacity.

To be sure, The Love Song of Saul Alinsky looks forward and back upon a life and tries to justify it, peppers its narrative with literary references, and adopts an ever-shifting tone and point of view. And Schapiro’s play is informed by the same “overwhelming question” as Eliot’s poem: Was it worth it after all? But where every line of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” resonates with rare intellect, the closest Schapiro gets to poetry are strings of familiar aphorisms and Seussian rhymes.

Indeed, the overall ineffectiveness of this disjointed, seemingly unfinished drama is rather stunning–the subject would seem to make it a slam dunk. This is the story of a man who roused rabble from the Chicago stockyards to the New York ghettos to the California barrios, who took on Hizzoner, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and authored the classic manifesto Reveille for Radicals. The Blue Rider Theatre, where the play is receiving its premiere, is only a few miles northeast of the Back of the Yards neighborhood where Alinsky agitated. Terrapin Theatre’s production has won the cooperation of all the usual suspects, from Studs Terkel to David Orr to Leon Despres to Dr. Quentin Young to Alderman Helen Shiller to others who weigh in on Sunday-afternoon postshow discussions about Alinsky’s legacy.

And director Pam Dickler has found the perfect actor to play Alinsky: Chicago stage veteran Gary Houston perfectly captures the spirit of the committed yet fun-loving, street-smart and book-smart radical, educated on Halsted Street and at the University of Chicago. Chain-smoking and adopting a distinctive Chicago patter, Houston perfectly embodies the acid-tongued man who–like Thomas Paine–cried, “Let them call me rebel.” In one arresting image near the play’s opening, Houston, portraying Alinsky toward the end of his life, sits alone in a cheap motel in the wee hours of the morning in a haze of cigarette smoke, flipping through stations on a crappy bedside radio. Wan and bedraggled, Houston heartbreakingly captures the loneliness of the long-distance radical.

This image sets up a standard flashback drama–a retrospective on a man’s life–and certainly Alinsky’s career justifies that sort of dry, by-the-book approach. If Schapiro had gone that unambitious route, he might have created a perfectly acceptable and informative history lesson. With Houston on board, Alinsky’s tales of hanging out with Al Capone’s gang as a young criminologist or cutting deals with Mayor Ed Kelly would have been sufficient to inform and entertain. Houston in a one-man show about Alinsky would have been fine. But Schapiro is not content to tell Alinsky’s story in a conventional manner.

In the long first act, Schapiro zigzags through Alinsky’s life, touching on his Jewish upbringing on Chicago’s west side, his early organizing efforts at the University of Chicago, and his experiences studying gangsters. Interspersed are predictable snippets showing the resistance Alinsky encountered as a young organizer, with people shouting invective at him on the order of “Go back where you came from, Alinsky” and “Who the hell do you think you are, anyway?” We also get glimpses of his saintly wife, who stays home with the kids and pines for him while he’s off starting the second American Revolution. “Where are you?” she sighs. “For just one time, I’d like to do what other people do.” Alinsky does time in a Kansas City jail and does battle with politicians. He even appears before a bizarre red-baiting committee, whose members include a jester and an inquisitor who quotes Gilbert and Sullivan.

Schapiro seems to want to provide a comprehensive picture of Alinsky’s colorful history. And he does cover a lot of ground, but at the cost of character and plot development. Aside from Alinsky, no real individuals emerge. We see largely types: gangsters speaking Chicagoese, a rabbi with an unconvincing Jewish accent, a bellicose Mayor Daley, a thuggish Mayor Kelly, bright-eyed students, tough-talking salt-of-the-earth men waiting for Alinsky to organize them.

The second act does not take up where the first leaves off. Half an hour long, it seems an afterthought, set largely in a lecture hall where Alinsky describes some of his more notable projects. Also included are apothegmatic sayings uttered by Alinsky and the ensemble, many of which seem more appropriate to musical theater than to a serious drama about a major historical figure: “All’s fair in love and war,” “You are what you were meant to be,” and “What you lose, you learn to find.” Eliot this ain’t.

Of course, there’s no crime in not being T.S. Eliot’s equal. The real problem is that there’s little drama in The Love Song of Saul Alinsky. The play’s elements of Brechtian epic theater, straight drama, musical satire, historical pageant, and lecture never coalesce. And with the exception of the shrewd casting of Houston in the title role, Dickler has done little to overcome the script’s lack of consistency and polish. Few of the performers are convincing as they play a variety of unconvincing characters. Even the slide projections meant to illustrate Alinsky’s history prove ineffective: the images are too small to make much of an impression. Ultimately the play registers as little more than a “tedious argument,” to quote Eliot, leading again to that overwhelming question: Was it worth it after all? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Love Song of Saul Alinsky uncredited photo.