"This book is so full of laahs," Keli Garrett says, laughing, putting an exaggerated drawl on the word lies. "Funny laahs. Story laahs. Laahs black people tell. Laahs we tell to make our stories funny."
Garrett is talking about her new play based on Charles Johnson's rich allegorical novel, Faith and the Good Thing, which is being coproduced by City Lit Theater and the Chicago Theatre Company. "We lie about things that have never happened but have always been."
She says her father was a butcher with a "real flair for embellishing stories." He and her mother, who worked for the CTA, sent her to Robertson Academy, a small private school in Morgan Park founded as an alternative for black children to Catholic and public schools.
"It felt like a freedom school," Garrett says. "I got a real crash course in understanding who I was and who had come before me. I had my history taught to me every day. It was a great place for me. They let me read basically all the books I wanted to and let me be this strange girl who liked to read a lot."
Eventually her reading brought her to Johnson's Faith and the Good Thing, which interweaves African American folktales and sad historical facts, running parallel to the tail end of the Great Migration from the rural south to northern cities. The setting resonated for Garrett, the daughter of "'working-class parents with middle-class aspirations" who came to Chicago from Memphis looking for a better life.
It examines faith and deception through a picaresque journey in the tradition of Candide and The Pilgrim's Progress. A hapless, good-hearted African American woman named Faith sets out from the poverty of sharecropping in the Deep South and winds up in the quiet desperation of mild affluence on Chicago's south side. Along the way she encounters various deluded people--an alcoholic ex-professor, a newspaper reporter, a boyish painter--who persuade her they've found the way to the good life, but each ends up betraying her trust.
Garrett smiles wistfully, saying, "I think the narrator in Faith and the Good Thing is a griot, a storyteller, a teller of lies, who reminds you through his lies of what really happened."
The play runs at the Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont, through April 16. Show times are 8 PM Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday and 2:30 PM Sunday; tickets cost $15 to $18. Starting April 21 the play moves south for a monthlong run at the Chicago Theatre Company, Parkway Community House, 500 E. 67th. For reservations and information, call 883-1090.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.