Speaking in Tongues: The Chronicles of Babel at MPAACT | Theater review
A documentary-style piece vividly recalls life in the CHA’s now-demolished Washington Park Homes project.
According to one character in Shepsu Aakhu’s new documentary-style portrait of life in the now-demolished Washington Park Homes housing project, buildings are like men: “They all look good in the beginning.” You have to live with them a while to see what they’re really like, whether nice or nasty or something complicated in between.
By 2005, when the city tore down the Washington Park buildings, nearly everyone had concluded that the Chicago Housing Authority’s postwar experiment to warehouse the poor in shoddily manufactured high-rises had failed and that the structures themselves had become hives of violence and drug use. Aakhu doesn’t necessarily disagree, but he refuses to write off the people who lived there as faceless symbols of urban decay. Using interviews conducted with several long-term residents, he lets them speak for themselves.
The script zeroes in on one family composed of a Mississippi transplant, her adult niece, their respective broods, and the men who drift in and out of their lives. Through their recollections—recounted with feeling and authenticity by MPAACT’s cast—we get an incredibly vivid feel for what life was like in the buildings, from the promise of move-in day in the 1960s to the degrading, caged-in atmosphere prevailing after the city installed steel grating along the balconies. The show goes slack in the second act, after the family moves out and can only comment as outside observers. But things snap back to life again on demolition day. “The news showed them imploding,” one former resident says of the buildings, “but they always did that. For 50 years, they did that.”