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On Stage: Luther Goins gives harsh problems a soft touch

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"There is a vicious circle of babies having babies having babies," says Luther Goins, whose play Love Child premieres this weekend at Live Bait Theater. "I believe that there are people who should not be allowed to have children, and I believe there are people born who shouldn't be here. I believe it; I grew up with it....I'll read about some horrible crime: rape, shooting people, murder. Whether it's black, white, Hispanic doesn't matter--you see the same type of background, and my mind goes to: 'Should not have been born.'"

Goins has all the warmth and cheerful enthusiasm of a child himself, but he doesn't pull punches, and neither does Love Child, the story of four teen mothers (ShaWanda, DaWanda, TaWanda, and LaWanda) taking parenting classes at a social services agency. Like the old TV show In Living Color, the play uses hyperbolic ethnic humor to soften its harsh subject matter. By focusing on one particularly destructive relationship involving a young mother, her daughter, and her daughter's daughter, Goins hopes to drive home the fact that the problems of the poor are the problems of society as a whole. "This particular situation is black girls. But it could be white, it could be Italian. It doesn't matter. It's a situation that touches all of us."

The playwright, who grew up in Newark, describes his own childhood as "very poor" and his family as nurturing. He was raised mostly by women. "To quote Hillary Clinton, who I love, it does take a village to raise a child. I was fortunate when I was growing up: when you left your mom's area, there were women in the streets who watched the kids, anybody's kids. I was raised by tons of women, black women. Teachers, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends. Always. A lot of the characters in my play come from all those people."

As a singer and comedian, his father had opened for blues great Bessie Smith, and after Goins graduated from high school he enrolled in the theater program at Northwestern University. He did some work off-Broadway in the late 70s and spent the 80s directing and teaching in Cincinnati, but in 1990 he returned to Chicago, and four years later he was named managing director of Chicago Theatre Company in Woodlawn. In October 1999 he helped adapt CTC's dramatization of The Journal of Ordinary Thought, a literary magazine published by the South Side Neighborhood Writing Alliance, and later in the year he directed the prizewinning play of an 18-year-old high school student at the Pegasus Players Young Playwrights Festival.

Like those projects, Love Child gives voice to people rarely heard in the theater. It was inspired by the conversations Goins overheard while commuting to the south side from his home in Rogers Park. "All of these black women walking around, there is so much humor there," he says. "A lot of stuff that I got I just put together from taking the train every day. When the kids were coming home after school, usually I would sit back there with them, writing it all down. Were they always loud? Yes. Were they usually pretty ignorant? Yeah. But they were funny as shit."

He'd always focused on directing rather than writing, but in late 1999 he gave Love Child to David Barr, associate artistic director and playwright in residence at CTC. Because of the subject matter, Barr forwarded it to his friend Sharon Evans, artistic director of Live Bait Theater in Lakeview. Evans had worked with teen mothers as part of the company's Bait, Hook, and Link Outreach Program, which sends volunteers to teach painting, writing, and acting at the Maryville/Madonna Center for teenage mothers, a few blocks from the theater.

"I was working on a mural with the girls at Madonna," she recalls, "and I'd listen to them talk to each other and tell each other stories. The stories were, by turns, very funny or very tragic. When I was listening to them I thought, 'This should be a play.' But because I was privy to this information, I felt it would be a conflict of interest. After I read Love Child I said, 'This is so similar to my experience with the Madonna girls.'" Evans agreed to produce Goins's play at Live Bait and hired Ilesa Lisa Duncan, another CTC veteran, to direct. While the play was being workshopped, she'd given Goins a poetry collection by residents at the center, and he decided to include one of the poems in his play.

Love Child probably won't win any awards for political correctness. "When people start thinking that way, I wonder if they're saying what they really feel," says Goins. "When you don't say what you feel, you're sitting on it, and it's going to burst out later in the wrong way." His teen mothers have children with names like Clinique, Facsimile, and Dotcom, and in the production notes Goins insists that the girls have "hair creations." Nor does the play show men in a positive light; one actor plays all the male characters, including an abusive cop and a sexually aggressive boyfriend. Yet Goins doesn't believe the play exploits stereotypes. "I always think about that," he admits. "But it's real. It's very real. Each one of these girls is like, you can see them all day long. I don't worry about that because I feel that I'm being honest and it's a world that I know."

Love Child premieres this Sunday at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark, and runs through March 4. Performances are Thursdays at 8 ($15), Fridays and Saturdays at 8 ($20), and Sundays at 7 ($15). Call 773-871-1212.

--Eric Rosenblum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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