Bailiwick Repertory

By Jack Helbig

John Reeger and Julie Shannon’s musical Stones uses Chicago’s 1919 race riot as a jumping-off point and actually succeeds at embracing an important issue without sacrificing theatrical appeal. Though not perfect, this is a functional, entertaining, moving work of theater, with real characters who have real lives and real motivations and real reasons to break into song.

Reeger and Shannon have written shows together before, most famously their popular The Christmas Schooner, produced annually by Bailiwick Repertory since 1995. But this show feels more evolved than that bit of treacle: Reeger’s characters feel more fully realized, and Shannon’s tunes–a pastiche of blues, ragtime, and gospel–feel more tightly woven into the story. The opening number, “Mulligan’s Rag,” establishes in a few short lines that we’re on the verge of a long, hot summer not unlike last year’s, when there were riots in the streets.

Stones succeeds in part because Reeger and Shannon never aim for a musical version of a government report. Instead they tell the story of a small group of people–Virginia and Hannah, two neighbors, and their sons–living in a specific neighborhood at a specific time. Like a lot of African-Americans of their era, Virginia and Hannah were part of the great migration. Born and raised in the south, they took the Illinois Central north to the end of the line, looking for an escape from sharecropping, jim crow laws, and the dangers inherent in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

We all know what they found: a harsh life, unsteady factory work, and conflicts with European immigrants–often the working-class Irish–who were eager to climb socially and none too happy to share their jobs.

Director Cecilie D. Keenan and set designer Lori Fong effectively establish the story’s milieu, both the physical setting–the down-at-heels sections of Bronzeville–and the psychological landscape. Right after we learn that it promises to be a blistering hot summer in Chicago, we find out from the same number that gangs of the marginally employed, mostly men, are hanging out on the streets and in the alleys. The two ingredients needed for a riot–heat and pissed-off people–are here in abundance.

In some ways this preparation is a red herring, however. The play is set a year after the race riot–and there were no disturbances on the same scale in 1920. But Reeger and Shannon’s protagonists don’t know that, and the past summer’s brutalities are clearly a terrifying memory for them. The notorious riot began on July 27, 1919, with the death of a black teenager in a rock-throwing incident between whites and blacks near the 29th Street beach. The fallout from this altercation lasted five days and left 23 blacks and 15 whites dead and more than 500 people injured, two-thirds of them black. The rioting made it clear to African-Americans which side the cops were on: when they weren’t actively beating blacks, intervening whenever blacks seemed to be gaining the upper hand, they held back, giving white, mostly Irish gangs free rein.

The show’s protagonists, Virginia and Hannah, have clearly been traumatized by the events of the preceding summer and cling to their sons too tightly. This leads to the musical’s central question: will Virginia allow her preadolescent son to grow up or will she cling to him, keeping him locked in their apartment for fear that he’ll die, as the famous first victim of the riot, Eugene Williams, did?

Reeger and Shannon do a fine job of setting up their story. But it takes them two hours to wrap it up when it should take half that time. Perhaps the problem is that Reeger–also an accomplished actor who’s currently burning up the stage in two Court Theatre plays–knows in his bones how to create well-rounded characters. But he’s less sure of himself when it comes to storytelling. As in The Christmas Schooner, he introduces various halfhearted subplots–the return of an old lover, the revelation of a shameful family secret, a scheme to capitalize on one boy’s arm-wrestling skills–that extend his story to the requisite 120 minutes.

Shannon does her part by packing in lots of extra songs. They’re wonderful–and wonderfully sung by Keenan’s marvelous cast. But without a sure story to provide a setting, many don’t realize their full potential, particularly the supposedly rousing anthem “One Breath” in the second act.

Even more frustrating is how incompletely Reeger and Shannon explore the racial milieu of Chicago in 1920. Though their attempt to find the human story behind the issues is laudable, they end up leaving out too much: this is an all-black show that mentions whites so seldom it inadvertently exonerates them, or at least downplays the significance of white violence against blacks. Mention is made in passing that Washington Park was dangerous for black folks because of the “Irish gangs,” but the fact that these renegade bands of underemployed Irish-American youths caused much of the mayhem in the riot doesn’t come up. Nor does Reeger ever name one of the most notorious gangs of this era, the Hamburg Athletic Club.

The Bridgeport-based “Hamburgers” are mentioned in at least one account as the most active and violent Irish gang in the riot of 1919. Not long afterward–in 1924–Richard J. Daley was elected its president. (In Boss, Mike Royko wonders whether Daley was out marauding during the 1919 riots, but there’s no strong evidence either way.) This detail alone would have effectively connected the earlier race riot to other, more recent racial incidents in Chicago, but Reeger and Shannon either didn’t know or didn’t care to discuss how much shameful baggage we’ve inherited from our Jazz Age ancestors.

It doesn’t help that Reeger, who’s white, can’t really know in his bones what it’s like to be black in Chicago. Much of the show has a secondhand feel to it, as if he’d lifted stock characters and situations from movies, TV shows, and other plays. There are moments here that seem uncomfortably if mildly stereotypical. Reeger introduces an estranged boyfriend, for example, who foolishly loses his money gambling with a group of funny, loudmouthed hoods. Similarly, for all the grit and power of Felicia P. Fields’s Hannah, she’s more than a little reminiscent of the long-suffering, churchgoing “Momma on the Couch” so thoroughly mocked by George C. Wolfe in The Colored Museum. Comparing Reeger’s characters with those that cross the stage in August Wilson’s plays reveals a clear-cut difference between living, breathing, original but believable creations and characters several generations removed from reality.