American Theater Company presents The Project(s), a documentary play about Chicago public housing performed by the ATC Youth Ensemble. Originally produced in 2015, this piece was created as a three-act play by late ATC artistic director PJ Paparelli, who conducted interviews with historians, scholars, and public housing residents to create the play. A new version, condensed into one act for educational purposes, has been performed in schools throughout the city and is now being presented by the ATC Youth Ensemble for a through July 23.
In some ways, the play is a strong choice for the ATC Youth Ensemble. For one thing, it provides ample acting opportunities for the large and diverse group of students. For another, it’s rooted in both Chicago and ATC history and it covers issues that still affect Chicago youth today. On the other hand, it’s a play that features mostly older characters, and it can be difficult to suspend one’s disbelief well enough to buy that a character has three children when the actor is still a child herself.
That’s not to disparage the performers’ skills in any way; indeed, the ATC Youth Ensemble is a bright, talented group of young artists whose passion for their work shines through in every moment of this production. It’s more to lament that there aren’t more plays out there that allow young people to play their own age.
The play seems to suffer some in its abridgment. Although the text allows public housing to represent multiple things—a safe space and a sense of community on the one hand, a breeding ground for drugs and gangs on the other—the ideas are rather simplified at times, leaving the play’s message feeling a bit too on-the-nose. The use of stepping and other rhythmic devices is a good fit for the type of storytelling the play encompasses; unfortunately, the involved voices were poorly balanced, making it difficult to understand either the characters speaking on their own or the group chanting in the background.
Scenic design by Eleanor Kahn has a strong concept, featuring a rotating wooden skeleton of a scaled-down apartment building and cardboard boxes floating on the walls, eliciting the ideas of being trapped and transient all in one design. There were, however, a few errors in the execution of the set’s movement throughout the play. Similarly, light cues seemed to be called incorrectly on multiple occasions, with actors at times speaking while in darkness.
The Project(s) does achieve its central missions: it educates its audience about the history of public housing in Chicago, and it highlights the significant talent of the young actors in the ATC Youth Ensemble. In spite of some flaws in the text and the execution of the design, it’s still a moving piece of theatre with an important message.
Location: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron Street
Remaining performances: Friday, July 21 at 8:00pm; Saturday, July 22 at 8:00pm; Sunday, July 23 at 2:00pm
Tickets: Suggested $15 donation. For tickets and more information, visit the American Theater Company website.
All photos by Dusty Sheldon.