University of Chicago professor and literary star Eve L. Ewing’s poetry collection 1919 commemorated the 100th anniversary of the deadly Chicago race riot that was spurred by the killing of Eugene Williams, a Black teenager who drifted near a “white” beach while swimming in Lake Michigan. Thirty-eight people died in the violence that followed, and the Illinois National Guard was deployed to patrol the city for nearly two weeks. Steppenwolf Theatre Company recruited playwright J. Nicole Brooks (Her Honor Jane Byrne) for the challenging task of adapting Ewing’s work for the stage. We spoke to Brooks about her play, which runs October 4–29.
Q: How did you become attached to writing this adaptation?
A: Steppenwolf asked me if I knew who Eve L. Ewing was, and I was like, “Oh, I fucking know who that is. I’ve probably embarrassed myself in front of this person several times.” I would see Eve occasionally on the street in Hyde Park, and I would approach her like, “Hey, sorry, I just think you’re great!” and, like, run away. But she was so kind and cool every time.
Q: How do you approach adapting something like this, where the source material is poetry rather than prose? Does that give you more freedom?
A: The book is so beautiful and dense and frightening. I read it and was like, I have no idea how I would ever attempt to make something as beautiful. I had a conversation with Eve, and she shared with me the things she was interested in including, but the approach I had to take was: I read it, I read it, I read it, and I put it away, and then what’s the shit that holds on to me? Her words are definitely in there, and then there’s some observations of my own.
Q: Eve talks in the book’s introduction about how she, as a native Chicagoan, didn’t learn about the 1919 riot until she was in grad school. Did that match your experience as someone who also grew up here?
A: I didn’t know about what happened in 1919. I didn’t know about what happened at Rainbow Beach in 1960, 1961. I didn’t know about a Girl Scout troop in 1920-something in Jackson Park Beach that was attacked by hundreds of white beachgoers. What I did know growing up was, “Here are the areas in which you cannot go to because you’re not safe. These are the sundown areas.” My goal as an artist is to just get it out there and examine why this shit happened. And to make sure it never, ever happens again.
1. The Malignant Ampersands. Playwright Brett Neveu riffs on Orson Welles’s classic film The Magnificent Ambersons in this “very unofficial sequel” at A Red Orchid Theatre. Sept. 29–Nov. 20
2. Tiger Style! Chinese American siblings wrestle with model-minority expectations in Mike Lew’s comedy at Writers Theatre. Sept. 29–Oct. 30
3. Routes. Remy Bumppo Theatre Company stages the U.S. premiere of British playwright Rachel De-Lahay’s award-winning portrait of African refugees stuck in immigration limbo. Oct. 12–Nov. 20