Playwright Idris Goodwin doesn’t consider himself a troublemaker. He might have written, along with co-author Kevin Coval, Chicago’s most controversial play of the year—This Is Modern Art, staged last spring as part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program—but the writer, rapper, and current professor of performance writing and “hip-hop aesthetics” at Colorado College says, “I’m not trying to shock anybody. I’m not trying to be like, ‘Oh, look at how bold I am.’”
Well, the critics at the daily newspapers were shocked. This Is Modern Art, which paints a sympathetic portrait of the graffiti artists who tagged the then-new Modern Wing of the Art Institute in 2010, angered Chris Jones of the Tribune, who thought that the show neglected to mention the price society pays for graffiti. Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times went further, calling the taggers “urban terrorists.”
The reviews kicked up a massive storm on the Internet, where many (including Coval) used social media to accuse the critics of being racist, elitist, and old. “The response became the lasting memory of the play,” Goodwin says. “But, that’s what theater is supposed to do. There’s no point to me to do theater if you’re not doing something that’s going to at least make people argue and think.”
So he’s not a troublemaker, then, but a conversation starter. And next on his list of topics is another real-life act of rebellion, albeit on a way bigger scale than anything involving spray paint. Goodwin’s new play, The Raid, centers on radical abolitionist John Brown and his ill-fated 1859 attack on the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, which was intended to trigger a slave revolt but instead resulted in Brown’s execution by hanging.
Goodwin aims to draw a parallel between the 1850s—a time of intense, sometimes violent debate over the issue of slavery—and the current discourse surrounding race. “When I was in school,” he says, “the issue of slavery was presented in a very straightforward, black-and-white way. No pun intended. They underplayed how fervently and violently the country was split around slavery for a very long time. I feel that same level of intensity and willingness to be a dissident right now. People want to act. People are ready to have those tough conversations and are ready to fight.”
In The Raid, Goodwin presents two alternatives for waging that battle: the moving oratory and measured diplomacy of former slave Frederick Douglass, and the bloody methods of Brown, who had little patience for abolitionists and what he calls “theater of conversation.” As in This Is Modern Art, however, Goodwin resists condemning the lawbreaker. “I do believe we need those people who are willing to put their bodies on the line,” he says, “to get up and out in the face of these issues.”
Which is not to say that Brown is an ideal model for today’s activists—after all, people died and his raid was a bust. But at least Brown, for better or worse, made an effort. That’s something that Goodwin worries about when it comes to his own efforts to make social change. “I’ve had times in my life where I’ve been a protest person,” he says. “You know, get out in the streets. And I’ve had times where I’ve been very cynical and jaded and don’t want to leave the house. That question is always in flux for me. Is it enough that we’re making art?”
Go The Raid runs through Dec. 4 at Jackalope Theatre, 5917 N. Broadway Ave.; jackalopetheatre.org; $10–$20.