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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women

Or: Mighty Women, Muddy Drama.

Taking its title from a turn of the century misogynist, who doubted the power of women to change anything, Unwilling and Hostile Instruments seeks to celebrate seven of the city’s mightiest women, what they fought for and how their banners need to fly again in the face of injustice and stupidity. Unfortunately the play seek to do a great deal of other things as well, focusing on a legion of good causes and weighty arguments, wedged in so tightly as nuts in a squirrels hoard. Obviously, Theater Seven was afraid of audiences leaving the space saying, as one ensemble member mimics, “‘Yeah, Chicago women were great. Let’s go to Yogurt Square!’” In an effort to make us think about what we have seen, they have graciously offered to do our thinking for us.

Using a metatheatrical “Glue” story (written by Brian Golden) the cast of Unwilling and Hostile gather at the old Hull House Theater, to rummage through the old sets, discourse on feminism, social activism, constitutional law, and rehearse for a series of ten minute plays (penned by Elaine Romero, Carla Stillwell, Emily Schwartz, Seth Bockley, Lauren Yee, Travis Williams, Nick Ward, and Ike Holter) upon subjects from Jane Addams (pioneer reformer, kind hearted social worker, and poetic Lesbian) to Cora Strayer (Private Investigator) to Mavis Staples (the voice of the civil rights movement).

The stories vary in tone, from the delightfully vaudevillian “Cora Strayer” to the bitter yet reverently hopeful remembrance “Circle be Unbroken”, but all are chock-a-block full of insightful information about the women, their world, and how little has changed between their time and ours. The facts and figures sometimes tumble ungainly from the tongues of famously eloquent women like Ida B. Wells or Ann Landers, slowing the stories and pushing the performances closer to what you might expect of a museum diorama. Still, in and of themselves they are very useful facts and figures to know and in the long run, unroll one into another, like a tapestry of Chicago's soul.

The cast buoys both the mini-plays and the Glue stories as best as they can, carrying action and argument. The characters we see are the usual old hats one sees in meta-theatrical dramas: the put upon actress manager, the plucky lawyer freed by her turning to the stage, the exuberant gay man who processes the world through 90’s films, etc. It is unclear whether Golden wrote the actors lines with fond and familiar knowledge of his cast, but he makes sure that the stereotypes do peel away to show real souls and original thoughts (toiling away at solving the city’s problems) underneath.

Three particularly well turned roles are Jessica London-Shield, who has a penchant and talent for the prickly characters in this strange and eventful history, BrittneyLove Smith who gives her own distinct resonance to struggle and suffering, and Jake Szczepaniak, who takes to wriggling over the floor like the little mermaid and presenting sober, hard hitting arguments with equal panache.

Muddy though it is, and preachy as it can sometimes be, Unwilling and Hostile Instruments is an enlightening evening and will give nimble and progressive minds a banquet to pick and chew over. Whatever else, it is an effective goad to get out and look up, read about, and admire the mighty women who did so much for others, who made Chicago the city of broad shoulders and great minds, and who pace about in musty history books waiting for such productions as this to bring them charging back into life.

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