News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

American Theater Company's artistic director leaves a worthy legacy

PJ Paparelli was killed in Scotland last month, but his last show, The Project(s), lives on.

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In 2009, when I interviewed Roosevelt University professor D. Bradford Hunt about his just-published book Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing (University of Chicago Press), it didn't occur to me that his academic analysis of some wonky institutional history could be the basis for a riveting play.

Hunt says it didn't occur to him either.

So when American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli contacted Hunt that same year and said he was gathering information for a theater piece about public housing and wanted to use him as a source, Hunt was wary. "You can't turn this policy stuff into a play," Hunt told Paparelli. "You'd have to fictionalize it."

Paparelli insisted he wouldn't be doing that, and Hunt consented to talk, embarking on a conversation that continued over the next five years, as Paparelli and his eventual coauthor, Joshua Jaeger, amassed the 6,000 hours of interviews that culminated in the documentary play The Project(s). It opened at ATC May 5 to nearly unanimous rave reviews (Reader critic Justin Hayford was one dissenter) and glowing word of mouth. After having delayed the opening by a week because they feared the show wasn't ready, Jaeger says he and Paparelli were "surprised and thrilled" by the response.

Two weeks later, vacationing in Scotland, Paparelli stepped out of his car to shepherd some wayward sheep across a road and was hit by another vehicle; he died there May 21.

The shock of that was still palpable when I saw The Project(s) two days later, but the performance, by a scrupulously honed, all-black ensemble of eight actors playing multiple roles, was superb. They honored Paparelli, who was only 40 years old, with work that revealed this play to be a richly worthy legacy.

Paparelli had been in Chicago only eight years, arriving in 2007 to head up ATC, where he quickly alienated the ensemble who'd founded the company in 1985. Eighteen months after he arrived, 23 of 28 ensemble members resigned and announced that they'd be forming their own company under their original name, American Blues Theater. They said Paparelli had disregarded their collaborative tradition, cutting the ensemble out of artistic decision making—and out of the shows. Paparelli said the theater's mission called for it to be more multicultural, and the board backed him. It wasn't pretty, but in the seasons that followed, ATC produced a string of shows that commanded respect, including Yeast Nation (from the creators of Urinetown), The Big Meal, this season's The Humans, and Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, which went from ATC to Broadway and a Pulitzer Prize.

One of the reasons Paparelli got the job at ATC was Columbinus, a 2005 documentary theater piece about the Columbine High School massacre he'd cowritten with Stephen Karam (author of The Humans). Suzanne Connor, a senior program officer at Chicago Community Trust, was in the audience when Columbinus was first produced in Chicago, at Raven Theatre in 2008, and remembers being blown away by the storytelling. When Paparelli came to her the next year looking for funding for ATC, she said they'd be happy to give him a seed grant to work with another endeavor they were nurturing, the National Public Housing Museum. "We gave him a small grant to start to capture the stories of public housing residents, and he put four years of his life into it," Connor told me last week. "He went so far beyond everyone's expectations."

Sitting in ATC's little 134-seat theater last month, I was also blown away by what Paparelli and his creative team had managed to communicate using real-world characters, speaking only in their own words: that projects like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes were the result of space and financial constraints in a rigidly segregated city; that they were forced on the city by federal policy makers even after Mayor Richard J. Daley went to Washington to plead for low-rise buildings; and that the combination of devastating unemployment and welfare regulations meant they'd mostly be occupied by highly stressed, single-parent families. After years of poring through CHA records, Brad Hunt had concluded that an unprecedented concentration of unsupervised kids was what turned those towers into homes that were also gang-ridden vertical danger zones.

We know from Paparelli's program note that he was nervous about the assignment: "I thought, 'Maybe I shouldn't be the one to write this.' I wasn't born in Chicago and this story was predominantly an African American one. Perhaps it should have an African American writer." In the end, he decided it was more important to get the work done than to worry about who was doing it. He drew on academics like Hunt (a prominent presence in the play) and historian Timuel Black, who shows up as a venerable narrator, traversing time and (thanks to perfectly integrated video) the old neighborhoods. Most of all, he went to the people who'd lived in public housing, like Wentworth Gardens activists Hallie Amey and Beatrice Harris, whose words and characters are brought gorgeously to life in this production. Harris's daughter, Vickie, also a character in the play, told me last week, "we lost a family member when he died."

If Paparelli had lived there's no doubt he would have fine-tuned The Project(s). It has a near-perfect first act but should probably be shortened from three acts to two. Jaeger says they had a two-hour conversation just before Paparelli left for Scotland "about things we could change. We both had things we'd like to do with the third act." Some of those changes would involve "opening it up," making the story less Chicago-centric, so it could work in productions elsewhere. That's a reason, if Chicago's your city, to see it now; it's been extended through June 21.

As for ATC: Paparelli's death will be a turning point for the company, which had become, very specifically, his project.  v

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