Before it was retrofitted into an upscale wedding and corporate events hall, the landmark Motor Row building at 2400 South Michigan was home to the Chicago Defender, the iconic Black newspaper of record that in no small part empowered and facilitated the Great Migration of Black southerners to northern cities during the early 20th century. Inscribed in the lobby floor of the building were the words of Defender founder Robert Abbott: “No greater glory, no greater honor, is the lot of man departing than a feeling possessed deep in his heart that the world is a better place for his having lived.”
There are echoes of that sentiment—both auspicious and foreboding—in the fictional characters of Joshua Allen’s new two-act Great Migration-set drama, whose dreams and best-laid plans of creating a legacy and a new life are tested on Chicago’s south side. Dual timelines play out in the marriage of Wayland (Marcus D. Moore) and Della Rose Early (Shadana Patterson): one in the formative days of their relationship in 1921 Mississippi, the other after nearly two decades of drifting apart in 1939 Illinois.
Entrepreneurial in spirit, a young Wayland (Jonny Morrison, glowing with grit and optimism) tells audiences what inspired him to be a self-employed shoemaker and seller during one of the play’s more poignant and evocative speeches. One of his more acute boyhood memories, he confides, is the sound of a white man clacking around the hardwood floors of his home in well-fitted leather shoes, inspecting and quality-checking the housekeeping labor of Wayland’s mother. To instill that visceral sense of power and dignity for his own family and community, Wayland believes, would be to create a legacy that thrives through generations.
It’s a vision not quite shared by his young and pregnant wife (Demetra Dee, full of hope and resolve), whose sense of self is firmly rooted in the south. The land of her upbringing is the devil she knows, and the north—Black bull economy or not—is the devil she doesn’t. And she’s right to be suspicious. The eagerness of white employers to extend their hands to welcome Black southern transplants would turn out to be less about reciprocity toward their fellow man than labor shortages triggered by fierce anti-immigrant sentiment reignited by World War I. In the north, Black men and women would go on to find the same exploitation, just with different fine print.
The Last Pair of Earlies
Through 12/12: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; no show Thu 11/25, Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, 773-338-2177, raventheatre.com, $40 (students, active military, and veterans $15).
The Last Pair of Earlies marks Raven Theatre’s first in-theater project after its 19-month pandemic hiatus, as well as its first show within its new Equity CAT agreement. And it’s a fitting and impressively scaled selection for the company’s newest era; director Wardell Julius Clark’s finely cast world premiere production feels well-aligned with Raven Theatre’s aesthetic, as do Allen’s vivid words. In an interview with actor and writer Ron Fassler, Allen cites Tennessee Williams as an incalculable influence, along with Eugene O’Neill, and there are structural and spiritual reverberations here of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson.
That appreciation for midcentury American realism is mostly an asset in Allen’s narrative-driven play and Clark’s production, though there are some drawbacks to the mostly traditional approach, especially when certain key climactic beats don’t quite land as their format would suggest.
One illustrative instance involves a fraught, impromptu dinner party consisting of a single Cornish hen split four ways between overlapping love triangles. All signs point to the encounter being deeply uncomfortable, maybe even dangerous, but it’s largely played for laughs, lowering the story’s temperature during a pivotal moment to that of a more lighthearted morality play. Granted, they’re thoroughly enjoyable laughs—as elder Della Rose’s confidante and friend Myrna Lee, Tarina Bradshaw is a funny and gregarious force, embodying the secular, city-loving modern woman Della Rose has no interest in becoming. Likewise, as church deacon and platonic flirt Jimmy Riley, Keith IIlidge endears himself to both Della Rose and the audience, blurring lines between emotional infidelity and basic human neighborly companionship.
Though it’s an ensemble piece, much of Last Pair’s emotional resonance rests on Patterson’s shoulders, and the grounded range she accomplishes against some of the more vintage Williamsian tropes of her character (shuffling back and forth in a house dress, longing for her traveling husband’s return, losing her grasp on the real world) is a compelling feat.
For all its reverence for traditional, language-driven theater, the hardest punches in Last Pair are packed by a series of wordless or dreamlike moments, including Myrna Lee performing emotional triage on a broken Della Rose by brushing her hair; a frenzied, distraught table clearing; and the inspection of a freshly cobbled shoe—all moments heightened by Christopher Kriz’s original instrumental music and sound design. Allen’s newest work is a loving (if somewhat tempered) testament to the Black pioneers who reshaped Chicago, and a bittersweet portrait of lovers who set out to change themselves—and at the peril of their marriage, succeed.