Washington Jewish Week
March 22, 2007
Our story 'South Side Stories' chronicles changing neighborhoods
by Lisa Traiger, Arts Correspondent
Louis Rosen grew up on Chicago's South Side. But his story of the turmoil and racial divisiveness that uprooted his middle-class neighborhood of plain, boxy bungalows is my story, and yours, too, if you happen to be 65, or 44 or 29.
And if you happened to come of age during the 1940s, or '50s, or '60s or '70s, in any major American city or suburb. Because, Rosen contends, the story of immigrant and ethnic neighborhood transformations is the story of America, from Chicago to Baltimore, Washington to New Haven.
Rosen, a composer and writer, looks back in wonder at his own experience as a child of the 1960s. He watched his neighborhood change from predominantly Jewish to predominantly African American.
"That event had a tremendous impact on my life," he said recently, speaking from his home in the racially integrated Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. "It contributed to the shaping of my perceptions about people and communities and race relations and religion."
And, ultimately, it became a series of projects, including South Side Stories, a full-length song cycle set against the backdrop of the racially charged Chicago South Side during the 1960s and '70s.
Sunday, at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in the District, Rosen will bring to life this cycle of songs joined by Broadway singer/actress Capathia Jenkins, who in New York recently recreated the role of midcentury African American film actress Hattie McDaniel and also appeared in Martin Short's Fame Becomes Me.
Rosen will accompany Jenkins on piano and guitar, joined by a second pianist and a bass player. Rosen, too, will sing, though it's Jenkins and her nuanced honey-and-vinegar voice with a powerful belt that he calls the centerpiece of the program.
In fact, in the past few years, Rosen has written scores of songs for Jenkins, among them a song cycle based on the poems of Maya Angelou, another on poems by Langston Hughes and Giovanni Songs, featuring words by African American poet Nikki Giovanni. Excerpts from these three works will comprise the first half of Sunday's program.
Before Rosen wrote his song cycle focusing on Jews and African-Americans on Chicago's South Side, he wrote a book, The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood, which took an in-depth personal look at Rosen's home turf. He interviewed residents and former residents to cull personal stories about the block-busting campaigns that took place there as early as 1965-66.
Those conversations were astounding to him: "There was a sense of powerful emotion and memory of perceptions and understanding that literally bubbled up at that moment, the present looking at the past."
Ultimately, the interviews and book were revised into a stage play, which had an early reading eight years ago at Theater J. Theater J director Ari Roth, also a Chicago native, will reprise the reading on Monday at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center's Goldman Theater.
Rosen continues to admire the personal stand his parents took back in the day. His father, an optometrist, and his mother, an office and accounts manager, remained in their home on the South Side until their children left for college.
"They thought the move was rather shameful and they didn't want to participate in it," Rosen said of the reason his parents remained in the old neighborhood long after most Jews had moved out to the suburbs. "I think the reason they finally did leave is that after about five years of the neighborhood truly being a different neighborhood, my mom felt that all the shops she went to closed or changed."
She could no longer find challah on Fridays in the South Side.
But The South Side, Rosen insists, is not a Jewish story, nor is it an African American one.
"We're just not interested in the color lines. We're not a black act. We're not a Jewish act. The music crosses barriers: Some of it is bluesy, some jazz-based, some pop or folk-based. For us, it's been a joy linking up as partners. Ultimately, I think the audience for this is all Americans--so many of us have lived this experience--and it's not over yet. It's still happening."
On the South Side and beyond.
The South Side Stories concert with Capathia Jenkins will be onstage Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in the District. Tickets are $15-$25. The staged reading will be March 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the DCJCC. Tickets, at $10, are available at 800-494-TIXS or www.boxofficetickets.com.
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