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Theater People: when anarchists walked the earth

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Playwright and performance artist Pablo Helguera says that buildings have memories--a truth that Americans don't understand, much to the distress of our national soul.

"You can see it in this building," Helguera says in the cafe at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he works as the coordinator of public programs. "The armory used to be here. And they just tore it down and put this up, like the armory never existed. And this new building has nothing to do with the old one. In Mexico, you don't see those breaks with the past. You see a kind of layering of things. In downtown Mexico City you see an Aztec temple with a 16th-century Spanish cathedral built directly on top and a contemporary office building next door. Everything coexists."

Helguera first arrived in Chicago from his native Mexico City in 1989. After a year at the School of the Art Institute he headed off to the University of Barcelona to study painting and philosophy. He returned to Chicago in 1991 to finish his degree, bringing with him a new artistic mission "to confront places, read into them, take empty places and fill them up, give them new life."

That mission served him well in creating his newest play, The Palace (and Other Pilsen Ghost Stories), commissioned by Pilsen's Blue Rider Theatre. The play focuses on the political and cultural history of that neighborhood and is set in the Palace Theater, a grand opera and movie house that once stood on the corner where the Blue Rider is now located, at 18th and Halsted.

Work on the play began a year ago, when Helguera began hearing rumors that the ghost of a 19th-century anarchist haunted the streets of Pilsen's Mexican community. No one knew who the ghost was or why he was condemned to roam there for eternity. Whoever he was, he certainly wasn't out of place. Pilsen was a hotbed of revolutionary stirrings a century ago, home to a host of radical activists and organizers involved in confrontations with federal troops and the police, such as the 1877 Battle of the Viaduct and the 1886 Haymarket riot. Its residents enthusiastically attended the Working People's Social Science Club at Hull-House in the 1890s.

Helguera set out to discover the identity of the hapless spirit. Empty-handed after a few months, he decided to do one of the few things he likes even more than rediscovering history: rewriting it.

To invent an identity for the ghost, he began with a tragic and all-but-forgotten incident tucked away in Jane Addams's Twenty Years at Hull-House. At the turn of the century Chicago, like much of the nation, was in the grip of an anarchophobia that had begun in earnest six years earlier when President McKinley was assassinated by self-proclaimed anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Conspiracy-crazed Chicago police, convinced the murder had to be connected to the Haymarket affair, arrested and interrogated 13 high-profile anarchists, including Emma Goldman (who distanced her movement from Czolgosz's act by insisting that "McKinley is too insignificant a man to kill"). The Tribune ran Goldman's photograph encircled in flames, a devil's head perched atop her own. Five days after the assassination, the Tribune declared, "Nation's War on Anarchy Begins," and former U.S. attorney general John W. Griggs suggested that anyone convicted of belonging to an organization with anarchist tendencies should be given a life sentence.

Early one morning in 1907, a young Russian Jew named Averbuch showed up at the home of the Chicago chief of police on an "obscure errand," as Addams describes it. The police chief apparently mistook Averbuch for an anarchist bent on murder. To Averbuch's added misfortune, a month before he headed out on his obscure errand a well-publicized Denver murder had been pinned on an Italian anarchist. Like the luckless Jordanian trying to fly home on the afternoon of the Oklahoma City bombing, Averbuch had the wrong profile at the wrong time. He ended up full of bullets.

Helguera turned this incidental historical figure into the mythical star of The Palace. His ghost was not only an anarchist in life but an opera soloist with the Croatian Association of Opera Singers of 18th Street, a group whose photograph Helguera discovered at the Chicago Historical Society. The company used to sing at the Palace Theater. In the play, Averbuch's ghost has no memory but is cursed to dream every night, each dream recalling a bit of his traumatic past. The more he remembers, the more painful the memories become, pointing toward an act of horrifying treachery that has condemned him to linger on earth. The ghost is paired with a mysterious character intent on chronicling all of his memories in order to understand what happened a century ago.

"Once the ghost in the play remembers everything that happened, once the mystery is cleared up, the ghost dies," Helguera says. "His essence as ghost, as myth, is gone. He's not an unanswered question anymore. He is only history."

The Palace (and Other Pilsen Ghost Stories) opens at 8 this Friday and runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through March 9 at the Blue Rider Theatre, 1822 S. Halsted. Tickets cost $12, $10 for Pilsen residents (Fridays are "pay what you can afford"). Call 312-733-4668 for more. --Justin Hayford

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pablo Helguera photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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