Playwright J. Nichole Brooks Puts Chicago History On Stage
Hi I'm Justin Kauffman and this is reset. One of the most highly anticipated plays. This spring was Veron or gene burns at the looking glass theater. The work centered around the time in Nineteen eighty-one, when then Mayor Jane Byrne moved into Cabrini-green. How does one individual stop gun violence? How do you motivate an entire city? To Stop Gun violence. That's what mayor firms after. That was playwright Jane Colebrook speaking about the play before it opened on March ninth, but by March sixteenth the coronavirus pandemic had shut it down. But whether Harare Jane Byrne Returns to the stage or not. There's plenty more to come from Brooks. Last just made her a playwright resonance for the next three years, and Brooks has promised other plays on Chicago mayors including Harold Washington and Rahm Emanuel. Actor director and writer. Jane Colebrook joins US now welcome to reset. thanks so much for having me. You Know I. Take us through the idea of all the work that goes into putting a play up and then unfortunately having a pandemic shut it down within a week of its opening. Well I let me leave with love and say that though it was a heartache. Greatest joys of my life putting together a play. requires a lot of Patients and forty two. There's a lot of research. I like to do. I'm pretty diligent. I like to get as many of the fact that I can then I throw it all away and I, tried to create something with a dramatic spine, so there was a huge effort to put this play on by so many people and you know. It was the heartache that it had to get shut so early. Why do the play? What? What was it about? The story of Jane, Byrne particular the story of her moving into cabrini-green, the graduate tension. I think I've always been fascinated by Chicago politics I grew up in one of those households where my mom and brother read like three additions of the newspaper The news with always on, you know way before the twenty four hour news cycle, so there was always that buzz in my house. I was very very little, but I do. Remember when Jane. Byrne moved into Cabrini-green Housing Project and I didn't understand much of the politics. I just knew that she was a white lady and she was moving into the projects. And you know not very many people that back then, so I always held onto that memory and I do that often a writer I store things, and then I go back to recollect them, and so Jane was one of those stories. She spoke very clearly me throughout the years, and I finally sat down and decided to pen story. It's a it's a great way to look at Jane Byrne as opposed to putting on a biography play where it's all about her life, because that was such a not just about that mayor at the time, but it was about what Chicago was going through. Some of the same issues that are we're going through today and twenty twenty two mass gun, violence, segregation inequalities, but but that almost that microcosm explained so much about what Chicago was in nineteen, eighty, one and what it is today. Absolutely and what it was and sixty, eight and nineteen nineteen. You know we've come a long way, but not really you know so. These stories are all woven. They're all connected. I didn't want to create a biographical account of gene. Burns lies Let me tell you Jane Burn had a very colorful. And like acclimating life, and you have taken many elements that happened to her. You could have created a story, but this was the one that spoke to me, and I wanted it to be as organic and connected as possible I grew up on the south side. I'm born on the west side, so I understood segregation really well. If I didn't WANNA create a white savior story, I wanted to create a story that would actively put. Some my call to protagonist. Right into it. You know this is not her. Being elected to office, this is. After she's been in office for some time, and you know no one's waving flags. The celebration is over. The gunshots are still happening. There's still people at odds so I feel like nineteen eighty. One is pretty much like south twenty. I Read Ben Austin's book on Cabrini-green not too long ago, and it was interesting because of the experience of of of Jane Byrne. She lived in the I forgot where she lived, she lived in the Gold Coast or in the street or area, and and the idea that she was just just a stretch. I mean almost a walking distance away from cabrini-green, but the way that the city has always been in the way that you know. It was of course in Nineteen eighty-one Crossover one area and. The city's entirely different. Our city has always been divided by viaducts and train tracks, and you know markers James Burn lived on chestnut just off of Michigan Avenue that that's less than a mile from the location of the cabrini-green housing projects. So you know now you go over in that area. There's a target. there. Aren't very many remnants of what it used to be but Chicago Though is a bit more integrated now they're still those same train tracks and viaducts and things that changed from block to block where you can go from incident neighborhoods to the most posh. You know neighborhoods that have everything from Polka to doggy daycare and other people have food deserts so I just WanNa. Give a shout out of love then, Austin. I think it's important that writers of all types. Try to let us know what Chicago was throughout the years because erasure is a dangerous thing, it is interesting to me why it's like I'd love to know why it's important to tell those stories to tell the story of Jane Byrne Cabrini-green from Nineteen Eighty one to an audience in two thousand twenty. They're the generation that only know AIRBNB and You know. I want people to know that Chicago has. Always been home to so many different types of folks. We don't often get to see it. Especially people that live in underserved communities or a hood, the ghetto, the however you want to paint it, and then there are the stories of the folks that lives in the most posh areas. We have to blend those. Those narratives we. We have to get the truth out there. Otherwise I fear that we will have a city that lacks soul and truth, and it's the only way that we're gonNA. Get through this mess that we're in. You know I've always been one to gaze at old architecture. I like golf. I think there go all out the city so for me that provides so many stories and Jane Byrne was One. One of them she was fascinating. I didn't necessarily agree with her politics. You know, but for me. I wanted to create this play to show my interpretation of this moment of time, and you also met so many other characters that were residents of H.. They're they're. Activists are just so many people. Just story cannot belong to one alone, and so. That's why I wrote the the Jane Burn Play. Is there any way? I know how hard it is to put a play up and how much money goes into it and resources, and and of course you know just like you, said the sweat equity that goes into putting. Is there any way because this was cut short? That that you are looking lesser others may remount this at some point to give audiences when maybe we have a vaccine or something a chance to see your work. Sure I, certainly hope so. Don't you know the team at looking glass? We work hard every day to try to figure out how nurture the community where we are now, and we hope to remount plays some day right now. Live theaters. You know it folks. Will it really won't be quite. The same were in this thing across the nation and the world where we're trying to figure out how to bring live theater. Theater back because it is essential, theater can be healing. theater can be informative, so we're hoping to bring this play back in one way or another, but I have to say if it doesn't come back. I'm so glad that she got to live for a few short days and that young kids even got. We have some school. Groups come through the see, and that made me happier than any critic or any sort of. Anybody else coming through I wanNA make a work sodas, these shorties no! Let. The past was so that they can know how to move forward I. You know we always turn to. Our stages are playwrights. An some cases are are writers, but we turn to the theater to have these difficul conversations through the work. And you see great work, and including her honor Gene Burns and others taking on issues, difficult issues of race and Justice and equality when we don't have the experience to go and share in that conversation in a room together because of the pandemic. Where are these conversations happening where it's? Should they be happening? And what did we lose by not having? Playwrights be able to express themselves in this way. I think that the artist is one of the greatest and most dangerous people ever because we can get into all the places all right, and you get into those places, and you hear the stories, and you weave, and you pass them along if we lose that. From live. Theater we'RE GONNA be trapped behind these computers now. Lesson online media can be a wonderful thing, but there is nothing like coming together in space. In watching magic happen. In it's woven by human, so I hope that we don't lose that connection. I hope that as we as a society figure out how to move through this covert world that we can do so remember that live theater and human performance. It dot something for you. It's magic is essential and You. Know I hope we don't move that. You might be willing to listen to me in the play. You may not be willing to listen to me if we're trying to sit down for coffee. Talking about why racism is bad so I. Just put all my words in the play I'm an anti fascist. Out there, you're not gonNA. GET ABOUT THEIR JANA goal brooks playwright, also actress actresses writer director here in Chicago. You were named playwright in residence for looking last theater, which is for three years. How how do you like that? How do you like being a playwright in residence because you have have been in a different theater companies in different roles? Do you like the idea of having a residency at one theater? Working Glass. Theater is my husband fame it is where I've grown up and It's because of looking West theater that I I have a career as a writer, and as a director and of course I've gone on to do other things and we'll continue to, but it means the world's me having this Mellon, foundation a resident playwright. It just means everything to me. It gives me a chance to not. Only just tell the stories that I wanNA share I don't have to cobble together seventy four jobs just to pay rent. You know that's really what a lot of creators face. Food and security you you're. You're working project to project you're you're taking a little bit of money and just stretching it for three years, and it's not really a sustainable way to live, so I'm grateful to have. Have this opportunity I. Hope to create more opportunities like this. Because really this should be the norm. So for the next years I get to create more Chicago story with looking Glass Theater my home team, and and that means I also worked with other artists that aren't necessarily from looking less because I have this wonderful grant so I'm very grateful, excited and hope, I don't screw it up. With the. And when we talk about telling the stories of Chicago history, there's promises of telling more stories through the I guess the characters of Chicago mayors of the past you talked to a teased out in the press release about a play about hair, Washington. City Council and also play about Rahm Emanuel, so tell us what draws you to telling stories through these figures. I when I sat down to write the Jane I'm play, and and I just mentioned to people. Hey I'm writing a play about Jane Byrne. They will say well you know. Herald, and if you mentioned, Herald, they go. Oh, well, you know they daily and daily. People are fascinated with Chicago mayors and I am one of those people. So this is an entire Canon or a trilogy or you know I? It's just a bunch of stories. That I'm hoping to put together about. A specific moment and these mayors life I'm not setting out to make biographical play again. These are all people that have rich and interesting and fascinating lives, but you can't get all that information and the to our play, so I'm trying to so the next play. I'm working on terror Washington in the city council, wars. Yes, we know. The Herald was the first black man spe- elected of the city, and there all these wonderful things about him, but for me the city council wars and you got ever Doley all these other people that. Dramatically interesting to me, so that's where we're going next and I'm going to get around manual. It's amazing to think too. Because your your brain goes right to the imagery of of Dick Mills standing up on top of a desk or you know the screaming and the yelling and the and the scenes that you see if you go to youtube to look at the council wars and any of the footage it's up there. You'll see the doorways of people trying to squeeze through and all of this chaos around whether it's City Council and Council wars of the death of hair, Washington who was in office I mean there's so much richest when it comes to just the the visuals that come to. Nothing like Chicago political theater some to stuff. I really can't write that. You just have to record what happened. Because some of it is so unbelievable and we don't really see a city council. Today like we did in nineteen eighty one. They were passionate. and. I love it because today you may see mayor, lightfoot and Alderman fighting or swearing at each other zoom, or you may catch a hot mic where the mayor says something about somebody who's there and people may. Be. Aghast at at what happened or or talk about it in the moment, but for me it reflects back to a long political tradition and history of of mayors, being almost not ready for television when it comes to how they interact with the press and chicagoans. Well said I remember when I was younger I would look at parliament over in the UK, and how they would just yell at each other and I'm. How could they do that and I'm like Oh wait. That's what they're doing this cargo. They're going at it so I like watching people go at it. My last question for you just as we've seen some of the partner theaters in Chicago, the Victory Gardens comes to mind and others who who have had reckonings in this moment about institutionalized racism, or maybe not promoting diversity for to be a performer and artist collar working in Chicago. What does the theater community need to do to be better? Oh. Confronting Systemic Racism Patriarchy. You know we're often forced to move and spaces where we're told that Hetero normative is the. There's a lot to break down and I think What can we do is Well we have to identify. What these things are. And after you identify it, you have to work tirelessly to tear down all of these systems of oppression. Only way we can move forward. We look forward to those themes being in the new works that surely will come out and looking last theater with their new playwright in residence Jane Goal Brooks. Who has been a playwright and actor director and writer in town? Her honor Jane. Byrne got to run for about a week before. Kovic shut down and we're looking forward to more work. Ms Brooks thanks so much for joining us today and reset appreciated. Kelsey next time. And that's reset. Make sure your subscribe to the podcast plenty more conversations to come with the people that make Chicago Great I'm Justin Kauffman thanks for listening to reset from Chicago's NPR station WBZ.