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A New Radio Play Dramatizes the 1919 Race Riot

For Natalie Y. Moore, WBEZ’s South Side reporter, retelling one of the city’s darkest chapters is a form of healing, or at least homage.

Natalie Y. Moore Photo: Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

As the 100th anniversary of Chicago’s 1919 race riot approached, WBEZ reporter Natalie Y. Moore wanted to commemorate the occasion through the medium she knows best: radio. But instead of the sober reporting you’d see from traditional media outlets, Moore wrote an audio play recreating the events as they would have been heard and experienced. To do that, she teamed up with the Make-Believe Association, a local storytelling organization that creates socially-driven audio dramas. Six months, 18 actors, and one script — cowritten with Make-Believe founder Jeremy McCarter — later, Moore’s vision came to life.

City on Fire: Chicago Race Riot 1919 aired October 2 and was released as a podcast on October 4. It was produced by McCarter and WBEZ editor Cate Cahan, engineered by WBEZ, and features original sound design by Mikhail Fiksel, a composer and musician with Make-Believe. Though the new audio drama uses slight creative liberties in revisiting the race riot, its central narrative is rooted in primary source documents like court records, newspapers, and the Chicago Commission on Race Relations’s 1922 report on the violence.

The riot’s aftermath is still felt today: The South Side’s housing segregation, economic disinvestment in predominantly black neighborhoods, and racial tensions between black Chicagoans and law enforcement can all be tied to the events of 1919. We spoke with Moore about writing the new play and what Chicagoans can continue to learn from the riot.

There was a lot of media attention surrounding the July anniversary of the riots. How does City on Fire showcase the riot differently?

I’m happy that we’re part of a collection of anniversary stories and conversations. We wanted to be distinctive [and use] audio — this is what we do. We wanted people to feel like they were there. What did it feel like to be in 1919? If you close your eyes and listen, can you get a sense of what it felt like? There’s the sound of the city, there’s a street car, there’s screeching.

We made a conscious decision not to depict violence. We do have two monologues from Eugene Temple and Oscar Dozier [a white and black man, respectively, both killed during the riot], who describe their deaths. That was an artistic choice to draw you into their words, but we didn’t want it to be violent. We didn’t take you there in that way, but we wanted to show the chaos that was happening, [like] describing the mob on the street, hearing police officers, and also getting people to understand what [each eyewitness’s] response was.

Have you ever written in this style?

No. I’m actually writing a separate play I was commissioned to do for 16th Street Theater that hasn’t been performed yet. It’s about abortion billboards. We’re hoping it’ll be in the 2021 season.

I was probably also attracted to the idea of doing a play because this is something I’m doing in my spare time. There actually are a lot of parallels in script writing for WBEZ or any kind of public radio and playwriting. As a matter of fact, some of the NPR training books say writing a news feature script is like writing a three-act play. 

How did you feel listening to the fully produced final version?

The first time I heard all of the sound layers in, it felt emotional. Tears almost came to my eyes. I definitely think if I didn’t work on it, if I had just heard it as an audience member, I probably would have had [an even] stronger emotional reaction, but I had been through the stages, so I knew what to expect. But in the end, it was still really emotional.

What did you learn about the riot that you didn’t know prior to the play?

As someone who knew and has written a little bit about the riot and their impact, I still — and I think for a lot of people — didn’t really understand how the aftermath of those riots shaped the way the city looks, because so many of the solutions were, “Let’s just segregate the city for everybody’s own good.” And that’s what happened. There was a moment where the city could have taken a different path — the report gives examples of what could have been done. The choice was to embrace segregation and keep black people in one part of the city. And it didn’t have to be that way.

For someone who might not know anything about the city’s history of segregation and race violence, how can the podcast help their Chicago education?

[By] using art to tell history. Maybe someone doesn’t want to read the history books, any of the accounts, or the report about the riot. But using art can maybe be an entrée into discovery.

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