Mortar Theatre’s ‘Under America’ Explores Complexities of Public Housing

By Megan Cottrell | Tuesday, September 14, 2010

'Under America' runs through Sept. 26 at The Athenaeum.

It’s an odd experience to see a play that so closely mirrors your own life that it’s like seeing yourself, dressed in costume, spouting lines on a stage in front of you. That’s how I felt this weekend when I attended the premiere of Mortar Theatre‘s Under America,  a new play running this month at The Athenaeum.

A Chicago newspaper reporter is assigned to cover public housing. At first, she’s a little befuddled but then falls headlong into her beat, delving into an unknown world and learning as much about it as she can. Soon she meets people who need her help. Although her idealistic instincts propel her forward, she discovers that coming to the rescue isn’t as easy as she thought it would be.

That’s me. I landed in Chicago two years ago, excited to bring the light of truth to a city full of urban ills. Assigned to cover public housing, I dove in and discovered a kingdom as complex and dynamic as any dreamed up by a fantasy writer. It wasn’t enough just to write; I had to help. But I discovered time and time again that my help often wasn’t wanted or couldn’t deliver the results I so desperately hoped for.

Under America has the potential to be full of urban cliches: a naive white woman comes to the rescue of a distressed black family in the ghetto. But playwright Jacob Juntunen sails past these cliches, not content to hand the audience a happy-ending story that makes the them feel good but reflects none of the complexity of real life. Instead, he delves into a complicated world of violence, good intentions, mental illness, and tense race relations, bringing the audience along with him on a journey through the lives of a misguided journalist, a troubled young man, and the families that surround them.

Jon Sharlow is wonderful as Michael, a young black man abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandmother in the Cabrini-Green high-rises. And Deanna Reed as Michael’s grandmother is as soulful and world-weary as any Cabrini matriarch I’ve ever met.

Juntenen manages to tackle not just one hated government institution–public housing—but another as well: the prison system. He correctly draws a line between these two, illustrating the cycle of imprisonment and poverty that plagues families in the inner city. “Is this a story about public housing or about prisons?” asks the reporter’s father. “It’s pretty much the same thing,” she replies.

There are only two elements of this poignant play that don’t fit. One is the idea that the Chicago Tribune would devote space to six feature articles on the topic of public housing. The other is that the Chicago Housing Authority would let a white journalist move into Cabrini-Green. But although most of the play hangs on these two improbable plot points, the greater story comes through.

With all the bitterness and frustration going around in today’s world, I wonder if audiences will choose to sit down in Juntenen’s world and consider the important ideas he presents. I’ve learned that no one much cares to hear about public housing, except to talk about how terrible they think it is. Whether audiences will come remains to be seen. But those who do will get an education, both in public policy and in the sometimes insurmountable race and class barriers that still plague our nation, whether or not we see them.

Under America runs at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Avenue, September 3–26. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $15 for students.

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