More than a century later, the events leading to the killing of 17-year-old Eugene Williams at a segregated Lake Michigan beach in the summer of 1919, and the days of tragedy and violence that followed, still echo in Chicago.
In a new production adapted from Eve Ewing’s collection of poetry about those terrible days, the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program explores 1919’s legacy. The playwright, J. Nicole Brooks, says she has been a longtime fan of Ewing’s work.
“I think her work is not only beautiful, but I found her words to be visceral. And I found that we had a lot in common, even though I didn’t consider myself to be a poet,” Brooks said. “But poetry can be very radical, and so it gives you the freedom to read the words that Eve Ewing has written, digest and sort of push away from it and see what’s left.”
Brooks says that the play is not a strict retelling of events, but an exploration of their reverberations.
“Even though the play is based on a book of poetry, there are characters, and the central character is a writer who is researching something else. She comes across this information about what happened in 1919 at the lakefront. And so from there, the character delves into all of this, so, it’s a memory play,” Brooks said. “It’s also a play that explores … what would have happened if Eugene Williams had not have drifted into the so called ‘white waters.’”
Brooks says she doesn’t adjust her writing for the age of her audiences, but she hopes this play resonates with the young people who see it.
“I want people to pay more attention to young people. I want them to support live theater and I want them to embrace the fact that Chicago has a long history, good, bad and ugly,” Brooks said “And it’s up to us to find out exactly what happened.”
“1919” plays at Steppenwolf’s Ensemble Theater through Oct. 29.