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You’ve Never Seen Gwendolyn Brooks Like This Before

To cap off a celebration of her 100th birthday, “No Blue Memories” tells the life story of Chicago’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.

A dream team of Chicago’s young black creatives put together a multimedia homage to Gwendolyn Brooks.   Photo: Julia Miller/Manual Cinema

This weekend, Chicago’s centennial celebration of its patron saint of poetry, Gwendolyn Brooks, comes to a close with No Blue Memories—a biographical stage play featuring video, paper puppetry, and live music at the Harold Washington Library.

Funded by the Poetry Foundation, No Blue Memories is the brainchild of local poets and polymaths Eve Ewing, Nate Marshall, Jamila Woods, and Ayanna Woods, who collaborated with Manual Cinema on a production so weird and innovative, it’s hard to describe. Narratively, the play charts the life of Gwendolyn Brooks, from her early days in Bronzeville to her Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and beyond. But what you’ll see on (and above) the stage is like being on the set of a Hollywood movie and watching it on-screen at the same time.

This companion video, “We Real Cool,” gives you a sense of the show’s aesthetic, but not how the live performance works. To better explain the project and Gwendolyn Brooks’s impact on Chicago, we caught up with the play’s director, Sarah Fornace, and one of its writers, Eve Ewing.

So…what will the audience actually see? Is No Blue Memories more of a play or a movie?

Sarah Fornace: When you get to the theater, you’ll see a big screen above the stage. Below, there’s a five-piece band, four projectors, 15 wigs, and 500 puppets. All of the music and all of the imagery is created live on the stage, and then it’s fed onto the screen. So you can look up and see a continuous movie with hand-drawn backgrounds, or you can look down and see Jamila Woods singing and the band playing and the performers running around the stage.

Eve, what’s the most interesting or surprising thing you learned during your research at the University of Illinois’s archives?

Eve Ewing: I had done some archival research on Brooks’s letters back in 2006 or so, at another collection at Berkeley, so I was somewhat familiar with the nature of her correspondence, and I knew she spent a lot of time writing letters to children and fans. But the funniest part is that she was so shady. She would write these really sarcastic marginal comments in response to people who wrote her goofy questions.

How did you first discover Gwendolyn Brooks?

E.E.: “We Real Cool” is the earliest poem I ever remember learning. I must have read it in second or third grade, and it just stuck with me. When I was older and in college, I was so happy to revisit her work and realize how dense and rich and giving it was.

S.F.: I grew up in Philadelphia, and amazingly, Gwendolyn Brooks wasn’t on the curriculum. A lot of the show’s other cast members from Ohio and Florida had never read her, either. But as soon as I started telling people I was working on this project, almost everyone in Chicago had a story about Miss Brooks. She touched so many people and gave away so many books.

Why is Gwendolyn Brooks still so important a hundred years after her birth?

E.E.: Brooks gave a language to the everyday, and in so doing gave power to the generations of poets who would come after and be raised in the belief that our lives mattered, our stories mattered, the places where we are from mattered.

S.F.: She was like a real-life superhero. She won a Pulitzer and worked at the Library of Congress, and yet still found time to go to all of these high schools and eighth-grade graduations in Chicago, and sent money for all of these poetry awards.

Will there be future performances of No Blue Memories after this weekend?

S.F.: We really hope so! We’d love to perform it again for schools and the public. All of our pieces are made for touring—the projectors and the screen—everything packs down, so we’re really mobile. 

11/17-18 at 6:30 p.m. and 11/19 at 2 p.m. Free. Harold Washington Library Center. poetryfoundation.org

Adam Morgan writes about culture and history for Chicago magazine. He is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books, a book critic at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and his writing has appeared in The Guardian, Poets & Writers, The Denver Post, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.

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