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Heat Wave: The Play

Eric Klinenberg's devastating account of the 1995 heat wave is coming to the stage.

"Pegasus Players in conjunction with Live Bait Theater present the World Premiere of Heat Wave by Steve Simoncic, based on the book by Eric Klinenberg," Pegasus and Live Bait announced in a press release. "Heat Wave will premiere at Pegasus Players, 1145 W. Wilson Avenue in the O'Rourke Center at Truman College, February 21 - April 6, 2008. The official opening night is Monday, February 25, 2008 at 8:00 p.m.

"Based on the book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2002) by Eric Klinenberg, Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University, this moving new play looks at the heat wave of 1995 which took the lives of 739 Chicagoans.

"Chicago playwright and published author Steve Simoncic recreates the hot air that swirled between medical examiners, health officials, reporters, mayoral staff, and sweaty Chicagoans. This co-production with Chicago's Live Bait Theater examines one of the country's worst weather-related disasters from all perspectives, creating a vivid portrait of a city in crisis, but with its resources and humanity firmly intact."

Mayor Richard M. Daley and City Hall have never answered - and never been pressed to - for what Klinenberg found was a public relations response to a public health crisis that eventually took more than 700 lives. Perhaps that's because Klinenberg found the media culpable as well in failing to adequately understand and react to the disaster.

Translating Klinenberg's penetrating and layered work to the stage strikes me as a monumental challenge, but the story Klinenberg reports is one that demands to be remembered; Pegasus and Live Bait are doing the city a service.

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I've written a fair amount about Heat Wave before, but I think it's worthwhile to pull up some excerpts.

"In 2002, sociologist Eric Klinenberg published a remarkable book about the 1995 Chicago heat wave that claimed more than 700 lives - a disaster that would have cost many mayors their job but hardly touched Richard M. Daley, despite what we now know about his mismanagement of the crisis," I wrote in August 2006.

"The deep, layered reporting and social analysis of Klinenberg's Heat Wave exposed a stubborn, wrong-headed, uncompassionate mayor whose failure to grasp the situation undoubtedly added to the death toll, abetted by a gullible and shallow media.

"Perhaps that's why, to this day, Klinenberg's book gets short shrift in Chicago, when in fact it is a masterpiece belonging among the top Chicago books of all time - even if Tribune 'literary editor' Elizabeth Taylor, who edits the paper's book review, once told me she just didn't think the book was that big of a deal.

"It is.

"After all, Klinenberg documented a mayor and City Hall staff more concerned with public relations than with the bodies piling up at the morgue that summer, and a media that failed as well to grasp the tragedy as it unfolded, preferring to put its faith in the mayor and the limited imaginations of its editors and producers in turning out the same hoary clich├ęs as stories that it does every year when it gets hot."

*

Also in August 2006, I wrote this:

"As Eric Klinenberg points out in Heat Wave, the mayor's after-report on the tragedy was called 'Final Report: The Mayor's Commission On Extreme Weather Conditions'; note the lack of reference to, um, the heat wave. The cover of the report contained graphics of both a sun and a snowflake.

"The report, controlled and edited by the mayor's office, was of course a whitewash. 'The executive summary offered by the Mayor's Office, for example, reports that 'the numbers of African-American and white victims were almost identical,' even though the death ratio and age-adjusted death ratio - which are included in a less prominent section of the document - show that African-Americans experienced substantially higher death rates than whites. Similarly, the only neighborhood-level analysis presented in the summary explains that 'nearly all community areas in Chicago were affected,' which is analagous to saying that nearly all areas in the city are affected by poverty or crime, because it conceals the enormous variation in neighborhood mortality levels,' Klinenberg wrote.

"The Tribune also says today that the city "came under severe scrutiny" for its handling of the 1995 heat wave. Really? Not by the local media, according to Klinenberg's exhaustively researched book, published in 2002. It was Klinenberg, not the local press, who reported nauseating nuggets like this one from a 'key member' of the Department of Health:

"'When Daley denied the Chief Medical Examiner's reports, he defined everything that the city would do on this for the next six months. You have to understand, there were nine refrigerated trucks holding bodies in the parking lot of the morgue, a long line of police cars delivering more, and there is the mayor - mayor of the third-largest city in the United States - denying that people were dying, or later denying that the deaths had anything to do with the heat. Imagine what the mayor's position on the heat wave did for the morale of other city employees and city agencies, or how it limited their capacity to do their work. Once the mayor took the position that the death rates were overstated it became impossible for city employees to say anything else. We were forced to find all sorts of ways to reframe the issue or to talk around what was happening. We couldn't contest his position, and in this case that meant we couldn't be fully explicit about what we were finding.'"

*

"Heat Wave is the second collaboration between Live Bait Theater and Pegasus Players," the press release says. "In 1994 they collaborated on Sharon Evans' Freud, Dora, and the Wolfman. Pegasus Players and Live Bait Theater decided to collaborate on this world premiere because of the extensive cast, set, and overall logistics needed to make the tragic heat wave of 1995 come alive."

*

"Ticket Information: The World Premiere of Heat Wave will be held February 21 - April 6, 2008. Preview performances will be Thursday, February 21; Friday, February 22 and Saturday, February 23 at 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday, February 23 at 3:00 p.m. Preview tickets are $15. The official opening night is Monday, February 25 at 8:00 p.m. Performances will be Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. at Pegasus Players, 1145 W. Wilson Avenue in the O'Rourke Center at Truman College, Chicago. Tickets are $17 for Thursday and Friday; $25 for Saturday and Sunday. Senior and student discounts are available. Tickets may be purchased by calling 773-878-9761 or online at www.pegasusplayers.org."

*

About the playwright and the author.

"Steve Simoncic is a playwright living in Chicago with six past productions including Broken Fences, Words with C, and Discovery Channel. His fiction has appeared in the Chicago Reader, New Millennium Writings, Spork Magazine and Drift. He has been nominated for a Pushcart prize and has written several short films. Steven holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, an MFA in writing from Warren Wilson College and is currently pursuing an MLA from the University of Chicago. When he is not writing you can find him playing in his band, Supra Genius.

"Eric Klinenberg grew up in Old Town, had a brief stint on the faculty at Northwestern, and is now associate professor of sociology at New York University. His first book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, won several scholarly and literary prizes, and was praised as "a dense and subtle portrait" (Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker), "intellectually exciting" (Amartya Sen), and "a trenchant, persuasive tale of murder by public policy" (Salon). His most recent book is Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media, which was just issued in paperback. In addition to his scholarship, Klinenberg writes for publications such as Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and The Nation. He's also working with the acclaimed filmmaker Judith Helfand (Blue Vinyl and Everything's Cool) on the documentary version of Heat Wave."




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Posted on February 13, 2008


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