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Two Tales of the Third City’s Social Horrors

Don Rose 28 October 2013 4 Comments

This has been a remarkable year for serious theatrical films on the African American experience, possibly because it’s the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Some are historical such as “The Butler” and the terrifyingly brilliant “12 Years a Slave,” some contemporary, such as “Fruitvale Station” about a police killing in Oakland, plus Henry Louis Gates’s new public TV series on the entire sweep of black history.




Closer to home is an as-yet unfinished documentary by Kartemquin Films on the 1963 Chicago school boycott, recently previewed to an audience at the DuSable Museum of African American History here on Oct.22, the 50th anniversary of the event, which emptied every black school in the city—with a lot of sympathetic whites joining in. The producers are perhaps best known for “Hoop Dreams” but have been making superb socially/politically significant documentaries (i.e., “The Interrupters”) for many years now. Director Gordon Quinn’s goal was not simply to memorialize the historic boycott, but to tie its lessons to the contemporary Chicago school crisis. (Disclosure: as one of the boycott organizers I appear in both archival and contemporary scenes.)


The boycott’s point was to protest the intentional segregation of Chicago schools and the unequal treatment of the black schools—which then warehoused half the school population. Today, with the white school population around 10 percent, anything resembling integration is virtually impossible, but unequal treatment persists—as witness the closings of 49 black and Latino public schools with more to come.


I could go on and on, but in a way the best parallel between then and now comes in the final verse of the boycott’s “official” song, to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land…”


We’ve got a school board that’s a one-man-rule board

He makes it act like a bloody fool board

They should all be fired, get good folk hired

These schools were made for you and me


More on changing from an appointed to an elected board in forthcoming columns, but I must take a moment to comment on a riveting new play, written and directed by Mary Bonnett, dealing with the rarely exposed but horrific topic of sexual trafficking in Chicago—a contemporary form of slavery that holds Asian immigrants, vulnerable local black, Latina and even white suburban children in medieval bondage.


I expected Shadow Town to be a typical, didactical rendering of a huge social problem. What I found instead was a compelling, maturely written and beautifully acted play with caustic use of music and dance that’s Brechtian in concept, sucking you in then alienating, then bringing you in again to the story of four girl-children and how they descended into “the life” of forced prostitution.


Our guide is a satanic super-pimp who introduces himself as “a man of wealth and taste,” then becomes a sardonic Virgil leading us down through his hell in 10 lessons, mixing sweet-talk, beatings and murder. Rashawn Thompson is magnificent in the role.


Shadow Town runs until Nov. 17 at the Den Theater, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. It deserves the widest possible audience.

Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

image Woodcut from A Tale of a Tub demonstrating the three stages of human endeavour: the gallows, the theatre, and the pulpit.


  • George Kocan said:

    I do not remember any school boycott in 1963, although I do remember much turmoil over race issues during that time. The problem with the Chicago School system is not segregation vs intergration and all that. The poor education of blacks and Hispanics and others stems from leadership and ideology rather than money and related issues. The problems of low achievement and rampant crime stem from the simple fact that the schools are run by Democrats for Democrats. The very party which has taken blacks and Hispanics as its special focus has failed to fulfill its promises of an education which lifts people out of poverty and hopelessnes. The Democrats have everything their way. At the mess of the Chicago public schools is the result. But, the fact to be noticed here is that lifting minorities from poverty is not the real goal. That is just window dressing. The real goal is what Chicago has produced over the years: a population of uneducated, uneployed, resentful and angry persons who will vote reliably Democrat for the rest of their lives. This system is here to stay!

  • Pat McKnight said:

    Would that it were so simple. It is not. The truth of the matter is that Chicago’s schools produced some very talented graduates in the late 1940s and the 1950s, truly among “the talented tenth.” Many of them studied in the demanding Hurchins-Adler curriculum of The College of the University of Chicago, because the University went prospecting for them. I was there. They were my classmates and as fully qualified as those who graduated from private schools in NYC. At that time it was, indeed, the Black wards which “delivered” the city for Democrat Mayor Dick Daley, the votes which made him the Kingmaker for Democrat presidential aspirants. That having been said, schools across the whole country – especially in Southern “Red States” are grossly underfunded, of dubious quality and have produced generations of nearly illiterate graduates. In fact, on average, Southern states, whether Democrat during and before the Civil Rights era of the ’60s & ’70s, or (after the Nixon “Southern Strategy”) Republican have consistently been among the most poorly funded. Arizona, not a Southern, but a Western State – ruled by a Republican legislature, wanders between being 49th and 50th in the lowest funding for K-12 public schools. In those “Red Republican” States the dropout rate is also disgracefully high. So it is essential to look for other more complex explanations for the problems with Chicago K-12 schools and graduates.

  • Not so said:

    “The Butler” is not a historical film in the least. It is agitation propaganda that has been roundly criticized for manufacturing incidents of racial hatred and prejudice that DID NOT occur to the actual character whose years of White House service inspired the film.

  • Mike Buck said:

    Wisdom from Henry Louis Gates on public television…..I suspect that he will be as tedious as Barbara Fields was in Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” I’ll be watching Pawn Stars.

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