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A CurtainUp Review

Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession
By Julian & Rhona Frazin

(L-R) Cedric Young, Andy White, Corryn Cummins and Cheryl Hamada
(Photo: Michael Brosilow)
No theatre company has done more to raise the role of water to an art form than Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company. Director and Ensemble member Mary Zimmerman won the attention of New York audiences and Tony voters with her aquarian Metamorphoses, which had its start at Lookingglass before transferring to Broadway. So it should come as no surprise that water is literally and figuratively everywhere in Lookingglass's new home in the landmark Water Tower Water Works, as well as in its inaugural production of Race: How Blacks and Whites Thing and Feel About the American Obsession.

Any Chicago school child will tell you how the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 spared the Water Tower--"almost as though the fire had a brain-and knew that it might be extinguished." Built in 1866, this prime piece of real estate on Chicago's magnificent mile, just two blocks from Lake Michigan, remains a working pumping station to this day. It is that image that welcomes you on entering the famed limestone building. Lookingglass audiences are greeted by the hiss and whir of the pumps and pipes, visible from the glass enclosed balcony. Turn left at the "floors may be wet and slippery" sign and you'll find yourself in the Lookingglass lobby, adorned with a huge photo mural of company members suspended, fittingly, underwater. Flat screen TV's hung on the lobby walls, show images of company members swimming toward an underwater video camera-bringing to mind the famed Weeki Wachee Springs "mermaids."

The first sounds the audience hears as the lights dim in the flexible 220-seat theatre (set in the round for this production), is a torrential roar of water, followed by the unmistakable sound of water draining down a sink hole. Perhaps this was the last sound heard by young Emmett Till, a Chicago boy whose violent death by gunshot and drowning in Mississippi has become an emblem for the senselessness of fear and racism. For certain it is an algae-overgrown watery grave for young Till, centerstage in the second act, that provides the plays most visually indelible image.

Lookinglass co-founder David Schwimmer, who has made his mark as one of primetime TV's Friends, has directed and co-adapted Race along with writing partner Joy Gregory, from Chicagoan Studs Terkel's oral histories on the topic of race in America. Terkel's stories are interspersed with the acting ensemble's own reflections on race-proving that everyone's story counts in this "American Obsession. " This point is driven home time and again by everyone from Marie Mobley, Emmett Till's mother (a model of dignity as played by Cheryl Lynn Bruce) , to the black and white kids in a pick-up game of basketball, to white folks riding on the subway and avoiding the open seat next to a black person.

The fluid production makes stops along the way at an urban grammar school, where a well-meaning, liberal teacher (Andrew White) is branded a racist; to Chicago's Marquette Park in 1962, where Dr. King's march for open housing set off racial tensions; to Durham, NC, where a Klansman named C.W. Ellis, who works as a janitor at Duke University (movingly played by Tony Fitzpatrick) finds a surprising friend in black activist Ann Atwater (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), as they work on racism and its impact on poor white, as well as poor black, students in Durham schools.

Poignant and sad moments are balanced with outlandish humor. In a game of "Name that Stereotype" Japanese-American actor Cheryl Hamada commits a burlesque hara-kiri after attempts at massaging an audience member's foot into relaxation fail miserably. And Riccardo Guttierez is on the money as a college professor instructing his students on the hierarchy of Hispanics. Q: "When does a Puerto Rican become a Spaniard?" A: "When he's dating your daughter."

While the adaptation isn't uniformly successful, Lookingglass does succeed in opening up dialog on race in America and more specifically in Chicago-often called Chicago's most segregated northern big city. And most significantly, the play ends on a note of hope, as actor Anthony Fleming III shows the audience a photo of his daughter Imani, a Black, Filipino, Irish American "child of the future."

Based on the book by Studs Terkel Adapted by Joy Gregory and David Schwimmer
Directed by David Schwimmer
Cast: Name of actors in alphabetical order-in multiple roles: DeAnna N.J. Brooks, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Corryn Cummins, Tony Fitzpatrick, Anthony Fleming III, Ricardo Gutierrez, Cheryl Hamada, Reginald Nelson, Rusty Schwimmer, Joe Sikora, Andrew White, Cedric Young
Set Design: Daniel Ostling
Costume Design:Mara Blumenfeld
Lighting Design: Chris Binder
Sound Design: Andre Pluess
Projection Design: John Boesche
Running time: Two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission
Lookingglass Theatre Company, In the Water Tower Water Works, 821 No. Michigan Ave., Chicago, 312.337-0665,
Length of the run and opening date - through 8/10/03; opening 6/13/03
Reviewed by Julian & Rhona Frazin based on 6/18/03 performance

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