In 1950, shortly after Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Annie Allen, the poet heard a knock on the door of her South Side home. Two white women had traveled from the North Shore to see the first black Pulitzer winner with their own eyes. “The idea of her existence was so bizarre, so crazy to them,” says Nate Marshall, a poet and cowriter of No Blue Memories, the forthcoming Brooks retrospective from the performance collective Manual Cinema. “They were like, ‘I need to see who this person is.’ ”
The production, commissioned by the Poetry Foundation for the centennial of Brooks’s birth, imagines that front porch encounter and more. The show uses the poet’s iconic verse, best remembered from 1959’s “We Real Cool,” to reveal Brooks’s human side while also celebrating her artistic and social impact. “A lot of people know her primarily from one or two poems,” says scholar, scribe, and self-proclaimed “Brooks nerd” Eve Ewing, who wrote the script with Marshall. “We want to give a broader account of her role in shaping American poetry and Chicago life.”
As with Brooks’s legacy, No Blue Memories is more than just poems. It combines verse, a silhouetted Chicago evoked by hundreds of handcrafted shadow puppets, and an original score by rising R&B star Jamila Woods and her composer sister, Ayanna. Together, the artists involved represent a dream team of some of the city’s best young black creative talent.
Ultimately, Ewing and Marshall hope that No Blue Memories will, like Brooks herself, inspire a new generation of poets. Says Ewing: “Her work laid the groundwork for so many to speak about places and settings not always deemed worthy of commentary by the American mainstream.”