Celebration and elegy braid beautifully in Lee Patton Chiles' new play, Through the Eyes of a Child: Coming Home, at the Missouri Historical Society. This wise and warm one-act focuses on the residents of St. Louis' historically African-American neighborhoods from cradle to grave and sums up a cultural moment that may -- or may not -- have passed. Two generations are on view: Robert Mitchell and Peghee Calvin take the "parts" of the Ville and East St. Louis and evoke the pre-civil-rights era; a younger pair, Eric J. Conners and Lisa Colbert Bandele, profile Carr Square and Kinloch in a more recent epoch. What unites these communities is the question of how they change "from a place, to a place to be from."
The text derives from Gwendolyn Moore's interviews with people who grew up in these neighborhoods between the 1940s and 1980s. Chiles had the gargantuan task (one imagines) of sifting dozens of recollections and constructing a performable piece with a coherent narrative strand that incorporates and distinguishes these very different and very old districts. In a nutshell: East St. Louis was for the working class, the Ville for prospering upwardly mobile professionals, Kinloch a rural refuge within the metropolis, Carr Square an early low-rise public-housing development. The four lively performers find similarities in the African-American cultural experience in which families had two parents and many children, church was an all-day affair and you left your enclave at your peril. And few experiences matched the shame of bringing a Spam sandwich to school -- though the embarrassment is made hilarious as Conners dominates this disquisition with wry disgust.
Everyone plays several roles, all with great aplomb -- a tattletale girl, a working man, a granny-chastened church-shirker, a mama with firm rules. In fact, "the rules" is one of the more successful ensemble pieces as Calvin, the senior woman, describes and defines the customs of this country: Be home before dark; don't fight among yourselves, because there's too many others on the outside; sweep the yard; don't grow up too soon. The grownups of these Arcadiae had no trouble taking a firm hand with their children -- or the children of the neighborhood -- and Chiles handles the loaded issue of corporal punishment with great skill and grace. In an ensemble piece, the performers dissect the etymology of "whippin'" vs. "whuppin'" (both stages before "switchin'"). Calvin explains that punishment couldn't consist of the removal of privileges because "we didn't have privileges."
For an ongoing project that blends multiple voices and different experiences into a short dramatic work, Through the Eyes of a Child is remarkably taut and thoroughly enjoyable. Yet I wondered about the demise of the neighborhoods and that story. How did positive developments such as desegregation combine with unfortunate economic circumstances so that these places now are beyond being ghost towns? It's a question for a sequel, perhaps.
Through the Eyes of a Child continues through March 26