An Unobstructed View
Studs Terkel is considered a local hero for his series of oral-history works embodying the belief that ordinary people are a more reliable source of knowledge and wisdom than scholars or other experts. Every now and then this strategy yields a home run, as when one of the men Terkel interviewed for Working captures the entire arc of a career in a single paragraph: “There are five phases: First, ‘Who is Joe Blow?’ Then, ‘Get me that new kid, what’s his name?–Joe Blow.’ Then, ‘Get me Joe Blow.’ ‘Get me a young Joe Blow.’ And finally, ‘Who is Joe Blow?'” More often, though, oral histories reflect a streak of anti-intellectualism without providing any compensatory insight.
Part of the problem is that some tales are simply more interesting or better told than others. This is as true on the stage as it is on the page: the two adaptations of Terkel’s Race I’ve seen here both failed because of the respondents’ banal, repetitive, or disingenuous observations on a complicated and difficult subject. Missing from the cacophony of anecdotes and opinions is something only a thoughtful commentator can provide: a way of distinguishing truth from falsehood. Though oral historians do organize and shape to some extent by deciding what to leave in and what to take out, their conscious standing back from analysis is the intellectual ancestor of lazy contemporary journalism, where quoting a liar from each side passes for reporting.
Alex Kotlowitz–author of the award-winning study of Cabrini-Green, There Are No Children Here–ventured into oral history in a series of public-radio essays featuring people telling their own stories. He and Amy Dorn have now adapted these essays into a piece for Pegasus Players, but it’s not a play. Instead it’s a patchwork of scenes, each a first-person account from someone living in Chicago, that lacks even the connective tissue of a subject like working or race: these are simply stories Kotlowitz found, and found interesting. There is no drama here.
Some of the tales aren’t original or informative enough to hold our interest: a teenager’s reflections on giving up her baby for adoption, a prostitute’s narrative about her life on the streets and its origins in childhood sexual abuse, three daughters’ thoughts on the death of their father. Other stories have greater intrinsic interest, like the suburban executive turned bank robber, but are recounted dully. Directors Jeff Ginsberg and Susan Padveen have made an effort to enliven the show by grouping the stories around themes–loss, family, the search for love–and as a result the characters wander in and out repeatedly. But the thematic links are tenuous, and the characters address the audience rather than one another, making their appearances onstage at the same time seem a matter of serendipity rather than necessity.
Even a striking performance by the charismatic Alfred H. Wilson can’t carry the evening. He plays our guide, Milton Reed, a muralist who creates fanciful views on apartment walls for residents of the Taylor Homes. His stories have all the crackle and pop of Mark Twain–especially the one about a woman who wanted a painted window looking onto blue skies and green trees with her arm outstretched and an upended boyfriend in the foreground so she could admire herself pushing him out the window. Ginsberg and Padveen get good performances from the entire ensemble, many of whom play multiple roles, but I found myself drumming my fingers waiting for Wilson to reappear. It’s impossible to know how much of the character’s apparent grace and good humor is attributable to the real-life painter and how much to the actor, but I look forward to seeing Wilson in an actual play, one that will complement rather than isolate his talents.
Wilson’s character captivates because he’s revealed through his attentiveness to his patrons: his stories focus on what they wanted him to paint and why rather than on his own life. Self-absorption is just as unattractive, and generosity of spirit just as compelling, onstage as in life.
When: Through 6/26: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM
Where: Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.