LaKecia Harris and cast. Photo by Evan Hanover.
Review: HAYMARKET RIOT: AN ANARCHISTS SONGBOOK at Underscore Theatre Company
By Abigal Trabue
There’s a lot to say about the Haymarket Riot of May 4th, 1886, a seminal event in the labor movement which began as a peaceful protest. Police had attacked and killed several workers the previous day, and when they tried to break up the subsequent protest, someone threw a homemade bomb. The blast killed seven police officers. The officers retaliated with gunfire, and four civilians were killed, and dozens were injured. In the aftermath, seven protesters were sentenced to death, even though none of the defendants had actually thrown the bomb.
Underscore Theatre Company has put a beast of a show together in this world premiere musical/song cycle about this defining moment in the labor movement and Chicago history. As Act One opens we meet an uncommonly progressive feminist—and one worth knowing more about if you don’t already—Lucy Parsons (played with intensity and passion by LaKecia Harris), waking to her house on fire. Lucy is older now, and in the midst of her home burning down around her, she begins to relive the moments leading up to, and after, the Haymarket Square Riots. Through smoke-filled hallucination we are introduced to her husband Albert Parsons (James Smart, who feels most at home when he’s a guitar in his hand), August Spies (Mike Mazzocca, who offers much-needed humor as the show goes on) and the rest of this young and passionate cast of characters who help tell the story as Lucy struggles with doubt and questions as she faces the end of her life.
HAYMARKET exhibits a lot of promise, filled with actors who ooze love for the show, and all of whom make up the HAYMARKET band playing multiple instruments. But, while I admire their pluck, I never completely stopped seeing them as actors playing characters. And, although the songs don’t lack exposition, the book by Alex Higgins-Houser is short on the focus and depth needed for us to really care about what is transpiring, especially when it comes to the relationship between Lucy and Albert. Harris and Smart never seem to settle into the role of husband and wife, or find a way to break through the formality of a 19th-century marriage and show the passion, sacrifice and deep love an interracial couple would have faced in the 19th century, especially a marriage with children. When finally addressed towards the end of the play, it adds such a layer of gut-wrenching heartache to Lucy’s and Albert’s story. David Kornfeld’s music is promising, and like the book, it takes most of the first act to find its voice and settle in, but once it does his melodies are infectious and spot on, and you stop comparing the show to RAGTIME.
As we reach the end of Act 1, director Elizabeth Margolius starts to come through, and through her use of stylized movement stakes are raised, the story finds pin-point focus and HAYMARKET becomes the living, breathing, musical I’ve been waiting to engage with for almost an hour. Thankfully Margolius keeps this trend going through Act Two, the book settles down into an objective, and the whole show has that cohesive momentum to carry us to the inevitable end. With a clear goal in place for Lucy and company (working to free those wrongly convicted) I began to find myself hoping for a happy ending, despite what history tells us.
I look forward to HAYMARKET continuing its developmental journey. The Edge Theatre is a great space for this production, supported by Kurtis Boetcher’s clever, multi-level set, and Carolyn Cristofani’s period appropriate, but incredibly hip and fresh costumes. HAYMARKET is well on its way to earning 8 hours of work, 8 hours of rest and 8 hours to do whatever they want.
[add_single_eventon id=”1478″ ev_uxval=”3″ ]