One-woman play honors MLK, Black History Month
Jan. 26, 2011

Text by Ted Regencia

SKOKIE, Ill On a hot summer day of July 27, 1919, a race riot erupted in Chicago, leaving 38 people dead, 500 wounded and 1,000 mostly black families homeless.

According to historical and newspaper accounts, the deadly event was triggered by the drowing death of an African-American teenager, who drifted into a section of Lake Michigan reserved for whites.

A group of white teenagers reportedly threw stones at Eugene Williams, for violating the “invisible boundary” at the beach, between 25th and 29th streets. Williams, who was swimming with two others, was hit on the head causing him to drown. Others said he died of exhaustion while swimming, too afraid to come ashore.

“Either way, he drowned, touching off the deadliest episode of racial violence in Chicago history,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

This fading piece of Chicago history came to life Sunday, during a stirring performance of Yolanda Adrozzo’s The MLK Project: The Fight for Civil Rights at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

The event honors the 82nd birth anniversary of civil rights legend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was born on January 15, 1929. MLK Day is celebrated every third Monday of January.

Melanie Brezill, a Northwestern University graduate, essayed the role of Alaya, whose own struggles as a young African-American student, led her to discover her roots, and the often troubled black experience in America.

Weaving multi-media presentation, poetry, hip-hop and history, Brezill took the audience into a survey of significant events of the civil rights movement.

With bare minimum stage props, she effortlessly switched from one character to another, while recalling King’s assassination and the civil rights marches.

In one scene, she’s Rev. M. Earle Sardon, who led boycotts against segregationist businesses; in another, she portrayed David Hernandez, a Humboldt Park poet. Still in another, she personified Dr. Margaret Burroughs, a prominent artist and writer, and a co-founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History.

In a rap performance that might seem incongruous, given the violent nature of the subject matter, Brezill recalled the story of Chicago native Emmitt Till, the 14-year old boy who was killed in Mississippi in 1955, for talking to a white woman.

In one of the most moving scenes, Brezill told the first-person account of Rev. Billy Kyles about King’s “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, and the assassination of the Nobel Prize winner the next day, April 4, 1968.

Nicole Ripley, education liaison at Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, said Androzzo’s play has been on-stage for the last five years, and has gone through “evolutions” to reflect current events and issues on race.

“One of the things that has been really wonderful about this piece, and working with Yolanda (Androzzo), is that we’re able to continue to develop it year by year, depending on what’s happening,” Ripley said. “The year that Obama was elected in 2008, we added a lot about Obama.”

In 2009,  when 16-year old Derrion Albert of Fenger High School was beaten to death, the writer incorporated issues about how to stop violence, and channel anger into more productive pursuits, Ripley added.

In schools where the play has been presented, “students are very excited about Alaya as a character that they can relate to, in one way or another,” Ripley said. “And the characters that they see, are the characters from our community.”

Brezill, who was recently awarded ‘Best Actress in a Musical’ by the Black Theater Arts Alliance for her portrayal of Emmie Thibodeaux in Caroline, or Change, single-handedly sustained the 45-minute one-woman play, with a combination of grit, intelligence and raw acting.

Asked later how she remembers her lines, Brezill, who debuted the role only last January 17, said “nothing short of a miracle,” she read and practiced “over and over” even while brushing her teeth, until she mastered the whole show.

“That’s pretty much goes for anything that you try to do, whether it would be playing instrument, or basketball,” Brezill said. “You have to practice it a lot.”

As an African-American herself, Brezill said she can relate to Alaya’s discovery of the “rich history and culture” around her.

“As I have gotten older, I’ve discovered the stories of my grandfather and my grandmother, people that I kinda took for granted in my life,” she said. “I realized as I’m getting older that I’ve got these living gems within my midst, of adults and elders that are in my life.”

Audience member Janine Oberottman said the play was “meaningful and touching.” “I was a Holocaust survivor. I can very much identify with many aspects of what was being presented today,” she said.

Yale graduate student and Chicago native Jeremiah Haynes, brought along his nephew Steward Moore, to watch the play.

“It’s a great show. Definitely, I like all the different characters and all the different perspective that are offered within the context of one narrative,” Haynes said. “The characters that she plays are one that we see in minority neighborhoods in general, so I can sort of relate at least viewing, or interacting with all of them.”

The MLK Project: The Fight for Civil Rights will be playing in different venues, mostly schools in Chicago and the suburbs through February, which is also being designated as Black History Month. (Photo credit Melanie Brezill)

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