Two playwrights dedicate play to CHA residents

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ACTRESS EUNICE WOODS, right, in a scene from the American Theatre Company world premiere documentary of the play, “The Projects.” (Image by Michael Brosilow)

By Dana Rettig, Chicago Crusader

Two years ago, Playwright P.J. Paparelli died in a car accident at age 40. Before his demise, he wrote and directed a documentary play dedicated to the Chicago Housing Authority residents. In the play, there are five African-American actresses, portraying different characters between 20 to 50 years of age. Collaborating with playwright Joshua Jaeger they wrote “The Projects.”

With drugs and crime spreading like wildfire, P.J. and fellow playwright, Joshua Jaeger, decided that if they were going to change their dream into reality, then it’s better to take a chance and reap the rewards than to allow fear to hinder them. The two sought the truth about the creation of the projects. They wanted to reveal the trials and tribulations of the project life, which created strong bonds between most of the residents.

A GROUP OF female students at Roberto Clemente Community Academy prepare to rehearse for the documentary play “The Projects,” which depicts the life of CHA housing residents. The students are receiving training from several American Theatre Company (ATC) theater instructors, who also teach at the school. ATC has a “Youth Ensemble,” which offers a training opportunity for youth to pursue theater at a higher level.

That was the kind of history P.J. Paparelli and Joshua Jaeger wanted to create for the world to see and admire. Turns out that his play would become one of the most prolific documentary plays in the world. “It took five years to create “The Projects,” said American Theatre Company and Roberto Clemente High School instructor Michele Stine, matter-of-factly. “He wanted to create a documentary play that’s relatable to the audience. [PJ] wanted to know more about Chicago, the culture and the people, hence, he decided to dedicate this play to the Chicago Housing Authority residents for their love, modesty, but most importantly, their strength to survive in terrible conditions,” she affirm- ed.

When asked if she believed that the students would be timid about portraying a certain character(s) in the play due to their own experience with violence and poverty she added, “There’s a possibility. Right now, we are in the reading phase…helping kids get a feel for the character(s) in the play. What we’re doing at the [American Theatre Company] is helping students find their voice, whether it’s in theatre – or something else of importance. Our goal is to show the world that there’ no limit to what you can do in life, which is one of the reasons we’re doing the play – to give hope to those who deem otherwise,” Michele concluded.

Fellow American Theatre Company teaching artist, T.J. Medel knows a lot about growing up in poor conditions and why reading “The Projects” script motivated him to become involved as far as shining light on the ugly truth about the projects. “I heard about it in my first year in the Mosaic program and once again during this year’s program.

I thought it was a great idea to shine some light on housing situations in Chicago. I felt that the style and choreography are perfect for the stories that the play is trying to tell,” he said, defining the term ghetto in his own words. “It’s a state of mind that’s designed to keep the lower class families stagnant in all areas because people have been systemically barred from advancing any further than allowed, sadly,” he said. “It was normal for me to take baths in the sink and to hear gunshots and sirens outside my vicinity, but when my family finally moved out of the neighborhood, I started to see that what I thought was normal growing up ended up being a dangerous environment of learned helplessness.”

Like many teaching artists, T.J. endures the pitfalls and benefits in the American Theatre Company, hoping that Chicago Public Schools would find a solution to assist students and teachers financially and educational wise. “[ATC’s] establishment in the Chicago Theatre community allows it to continue the program. Their accolades allow them to continue to receive from donors that are interested in continuing the Mosaic program. The pitfall is the schedule changes to the school year because of Chicago Public Schools’ inability to find a common ground in terms of funding,” he explained. For more information on “The Projects” play, go to www.atcweb. org/youth-ensemble.

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