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Heat Wave In Two Acts

In the summer of 1995, 739 Chicagoans died of heat-related causes. If you remember the heat wave at all, you probably have only a dim recollection of the scale of the tragedy. Why is that? Well, most of the dead were poor, elderly, and African American. Most lived in fractured communities where neighborliness gave way long ago to fear and isolation as crime rates soared and city and community services dwindled. Most media outlets covered the tragedy using the press releases issued by the office of Mayor Richard M. Daley, a practice still in full swing today, only belatedly trying to cover the facts well after the death toll made this event the single worst heat-related disaster in U.S. history. And finally, to this day, the Chicago City Council has never held hearings to investigate the causes of this gigantic stain on the city's municipal effectiveness and civic mindedness.

Fortunately, Eric Klinenberg, a former Chicagoan and now associate professor of sociology at New York University, performed a very thorough investigation of the 1995 heat wave. In 2003, he published his findings in a book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. To read this book is to be alternately saddened, enraged, and dumbfounded not only at the mismanagement of the event itself, but at the sociological conditions existing for years that converged to make the heat wave a perfect storm. It is to the credit of playwright Steven Simoncic, Pegasus Players, and Live Bait Theatre that they took on the formidable task of dramatizing this highly readable, but still scholarly and detailed work. Heat Wave had its world premiere this week at the O'Rourke Center of Truman College, in a neighborhood not so very different from those where the disaster hit hardest. The characters are fictionalized versions of real players in the disaster - only the names of the guiltiest were not changed.

The first act opens with a cacophony of poetry spoken by the cast members as they populate the two-tiered set from all directions. Eventually, the action settles in a morgue, with three full gurneys and a couple of stretchers on the floor. The morgue workers try to figure out where they will put all the bodies that are coming in. "Put them in the hall," suggests one. "The halls are already full," replies another. From this eye opener, we are woven through the early responses to a disaster in the making as we are taken to the mayor's office, a TV news station, the poor Near West Side community of Lawndale, and the offices of the Chicago Tribune.

City press officials Sandy (Joseph Garlock) and Cass (Barbara Myers) confer about their personal lives, the reports coming in from the coroner's office, and the advisability of calling Mayor Daley, who is vacationing at his Michigan home. Later they will wonder whether emergency response teams should be mobilized without higher authorization. A staffer for "Eyewitness News" brings the burgeoning death tolls to his producer and unsuccessfully urges her to lead off the evening news with it. "We lead into Saturday Night Live," the producer says. "Nobody wants to hear about this." Then she tells her female anchor that there will be no close-ups of her until she does something about her hairy upper lip. In Lawndale, a cop (Ron Quade) stops a young man nicknamed Vanish (Ali Carter) from opening a fire hydrant. In an attempt to follow the community policing manual, he chats up Vanish. The two men compare their lives. The young man's anger spills over: "You can go home. I live here!" A reporter who just wants to get off his suburban beat in Schaumburg tries to persuade the Tribune's weekend metro editor to let him pursue the heat wave story. Afraid to make a decision himself, the editor finally relents. Pauline (the wonderful Tay Lar), an old woman in Lawndale, applies lipstick to try to recapture her "sensuality" her "need to attract." In words of pure poetry, she recounts the fading of her womanhood, her transformation into a ghost. She becomes a real ghost by the end of the scene, as she rises from her chair and lays down on a gurney in the morgue. The groundwork has been set.

Act 2 is a mirror image of the first act, but on a highly escalated scale. Panic has set in at the mayor's press office as Cass and Sandy stumble through various explanations (those people would have died anyway; the medical examiner is mistaken). The story the Tribune finally runs has all racial and socioeconomic content removed. Top officials won't pull the trigger on an emergency plan because they don't want to go over budget in deference to the mayor's new business-model management plan for the city. TV crews finally cover the event when a mass burial of unclaimed bodies takes place. Significantly, the anchors mutter exactly the same script, clashing only when they give the cause of the tragedy - one says the city failed while the other says that the people themselves are to blame for isolating themselves.

It is near-miraculous that Simoncic was able to cover every significant finding in Klinenberg's book in the space of a two-hour play, painting a vivid picture of the disaster that anyone can follow. Unfortunately, he has to spend the first act setting up the characters in this multifaceted story and sketching the outlines of the tragedy. This narrative necessity leads to a fairly undramatic "talking heads" presentation, though the actors work hard to inject urgency into their segments. The exchange between the cop and Vanish comes off particularly polemical.

However, all is forgiven in the second act, which moves briskly, urgently, and with a great deal of poignancy. For example, as a CHA property manager tries to get an old man to open his door to receive a fan, the old man argues with his younger self (Ali Carter, in a second role) about what happened to him in his life. Earl Alphonso Fox, who plays the old man, as well as Lester, a morgue worker, is the perfect picture of a soul who is heat-exhausted and exhausted with life.

I was most impressed with Victoria Caciopoli, who plays Hopper, a young, pink-haired parolee who has volunteered in the morgue to reduce the length of her parole. She and Lester clash constantly over moving bodies through the system as fast as they can or properly identifying them and treating them like people. Lester says, "They're not people anymore" as he slides a body into a wall. "Why do you care so much?" he asks. "Because I'm afraid I'm going to end up like one of them," Hopper cries. Hopper forms the moral center of the play as we watch the other characters with other concerns flesh out the aspects of a divided city in which the haves were mildly inconvenienced by the heat as the have-nots were dying.

Director Ilesa Duncan gets a lot out of her actors, who have the difficult task of acting exposition in duos. Her blocking leaves something to be desired, as the acoustically imperfect O'Rourke Center swallows lines while her actors loudly crisscross the stage dropping plastic packages of personal effects at Hopper's feet at the first act's closing. The set, which I think was meant to suggest tombstones, was serviceable but uninspired. Kudos to lighting designer Sean Mallory for his sensitive, evocative choices, particularly in depicting the mass grave. Sound designer Victoria Delorio cleverly weaves music from the zombie flick 28 Days Later to create an aura of death throughout.

Heat Wave is a very impressive work of theatre that does justice to Klinenberg's work and provides the victims of the heat wave a level of dignity they weren't accorded by the city at their premature deaths. I urge all Chicagoans to view this important retelling of a shameful part of our city's history. Also watch for the film documentary of Heat Wave in the works now.


Heat Wave runs Thursdays-Sundays through April 6 at the O'Rourke Center, Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson Avenue. Call (773) 878-9761 for more information.


Posted on February 29, 2008

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