In his 2004 New York Times essay “The Rap Against Rockism,” Kelefa Sanneh argued, “A rockist is someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video.”
Change that to “hating the DJ” and you’ve got the central cultural conflict at the heart of Laura Eason’s The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, a 2015 play by the Lookingglass Theatre ensemble member now in a local premiere at Raven. Set in 1992, the story covers the last days of a revered Chicago bar that, in its heyday, showcased everyone from Stevie Nicks to the Clash. But that was then, and DJ culture and raves are “right now.”
Eason comes by her own local rock cred honestly; in the 90s, she was a singer, songwriter, and bassist for Tart, a band she formed with fellow Lookingglasser Joy Gregory. Eason’s written about the Chicago music scene before. In 2009, the Side Project premiered her play Rewind, based loosely on the 1996 suicide of Material Issue’s Jim Ellison.
The only things dying here are the dreams of aging rockist Hank (Jeff Mills), who’s run his eponymous bar for 25 years but resents being treated like a nostalgic afterthought. Especially by the ambitious DJ, Nash (Henry Greenberg), who is making moves on his daughter, Lena (Lindsay Stock). His landlord’s son, Joey (Casey Morris), is another whippersnapper nipping at Hank’s heels (and leering at Lena’s everything). Joey is taking over his dad’s affairs and sees no reason to honor the no-lease handshake arrangement Hank had with his old man for decades—not when the once-blighted neighborhood has become hot and there is big money to be made from developers.
In the wake of the threats to the Hideout with the Lincoln Yards TIF deal, Eason’s show, directed here by Northlight artistic director BJ Jones, should still carry contemporary weight. But there’s a museum-piece quality to both the script and the production that keeps it from resonating as fully as it could.
Much of that is because, while Lena is positioned by the end of the play as the future of Chicago music, we mostly see her in relationship to Hank and Nash, the two men pulling her in seemingly different aesthetic directions. There’s also Toby (Christopher Acevedo), the “nice guy” music nerd who works as Hank’s assistant and still carries a resentful torch for Lena from a short-lived relationship in the past.
But if Lena has dreams of her own, we don’t really hear about them. She speaks vaguely of trying to remake Hank’s into a place that would meld his rockist vision with Nash’s party scene. But it’s frustrating that we don’t see Lena’s own visions, especially in the thick of the riot grrrl era. Her unconventional upbringing in Hank’s world seems, paradoxically, to have led her to the conventional role of pleasing the men in her life.
Hank is the worst caricature in alternative music—a cantankerous older man who still harbors romanticized notions of what REAL rock is, dammit, but can’t wrap his mind around the revolutionary nature of new aesthetic developments. “Music is some kind of magic and you have to love it and respect it. You just can’t use it,” he proclaims self- righteously at one point—as if the rock legends he idolizes didn’t use the mainstream music industry to build very comfortable lives for themselves.
Eason flirts with the inherent racialized nature of rockism vs. DJ culture (though Nash is white) but doesn’t really address it, other than allowing Hank to offer grudging praise to house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles as virtually the only DJ worthy of being considered an artist. It’s a credit to Mills that he comes off more as a charming grump than a self-pitying dinosaur. But it’s also frustrating that he won’t take anyone else’s advice before it’s too late.
The women holding him up—Lena and his ex-wife, Bette, who came back to help raise Lena after the girl’s junkie mother took off—carry the weight of looking after Hank. Dana Black’s witty, wise, and compassionate Bette is the big beating heart of the show. She may have finally found some peace and quiet in the ‘burbs after years of living above the noise and smell of Hank’s, but she’s still in the bar every night, sharing a beer and her hard-won wisdom with her ex.
As a valentine to the music scene of the early 90s, Eason’s play is delightful. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s graffiti-smeared bar walls recall the old Club Dreamerz in Wicker Park, and Lindsay Jones’s sound design offers ear candy of the era. But like Hank himself, it’s a play torn between wallowing in the old stories and trying to fumble its way into a vision of what an undeniable cathartic music scene should be—right now. v