"Project!," the musical documentary at the Eisenhower Theater through Saturday, is a worthy piece of community theater.
The community is Cabrini-Green, Chicago's notorious public housing development. In musical numbers and videotaped interviews, played on dozens of stacked television monitors, the show wants to tell us what it's like to live there. No one pretends it is nice.
Teenage street gangs have carved up the turf, one square mile of bleak high-rises, and zealously defend their territory with guns and knives. Killings are common. The buildings are minimally maintained, and when the children go out to play, they find cracked macadam and broken glass.
At the same time the show, conceived by Patrick Henry and produced by Chicago's Free Street Theater, wants to rise above the reality it is describing. "Things are gonna be different for my kid. He's not gonna live lonely like I did," sings an impassioned father.
Taking a break from her laundry chores, a young woman vows, "I have got to build a life for me -- a life worth living."
The message is plain: Nothing will change unless the tenants themselves take control. Dreams must be revived and solutions found. In that respect, "Project!" serves as a rallying cry. While it points an accusatory finger at the Chicago Housing Authority, the real estate interests and "the powers that be," it is much more concerned with dispelling the apathy that is as much a part of the landscape as the caged stairwells.
Many of the 26 cast members come from Cabrini-Green. Still other residents appear on the television monitors, sharing their thoughts on how the project got into such a sorry state and what it will take to turn matters around. Curiously enough, the taped interviews cut closest to the bone and give the production what immediacy it has.
The 18 numbers that Doug Lofstrom has composed for the occasion (the lyrics are by Tricia Alexander and Henry) come in a variety of styles -- blues, gospel, rap. But the music isn't particularly distinctive and the lyrics make no claims to art. While a few characters thread their way through the proceedings, they can't really be said to tie the show together. "Project!" is content to stay a loose assemblage of musical numbers and interviews.
Moods are evoked. Violence erupts. In the show's bawdiest number, "Women's Blues," five women sing about food and men. (Any double-entendres are purely intentional.) The most upbeat songs -- "In Spite of All" and "When's It Comin'?" -- are reserved for the end of each act.
Effective as the singing and synchronized dancing sometimes are, the performers qualify as disciplined amateurs for the most part. But then, Tonys are not at stake here. By uniting some of the people of Cabrini-Green in a common endeavor, "Project!" marks a symbolic step in the exorcism of the community's ills.
One of the show's running characters, a jovial old man (Stephen Finch) who plays the harmonica on the streets for a living, explains it this way: "I give you somethin' for your change. You get 25 cent worth of hope. But you really don't have to pay nothin' 'cept a little attention."
Then, after a pause, he adds, "That's the rough stuff to get."
"Project!" wants some of that rough stuff for its constituency.
Project!, conceived and originally directed by Patrick Henry. Directed and choreographed by Donald Douglass. Music, Doug Lofstrom; lyrics, Tricia Alexander and Patrick Henry. Set, Rob Hamilton; lighting, Marc Shellist. With Aisha deHaas, Stephen Finch, Catherine Stephens, Valarie Tekosky, Gary Yates. At the Eisenhower Theater, through Saturday.