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Review: Speaking in Tongues: The Chronicles of Babel (MPAACT Chicago)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat


MPAACT Chicago - Speaking in Tongues - Shepsu Aakhu

Speaking in Tongues

Written by Shepsu Aakhu
Directed by Andrea J. Diamond
Greenhouse Theater Ctr., 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
thru Oct 30  |  tickets: $21-$23  |  more info

Check for half-price tickets 
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Brilliant play conveys bittersweet memories of a caged life


MPAACT Chicago - Speaking in Tongues - Shepsu Aakhu

MPAACT presents


Speaking in Tongues: The Chronicles of Babel

Review by K.D. Hopkins

As I was on my way to watch MPAACT‘s production of Speaking in Tongues: The Chronicles of Babel, I recounted my own memories of relatives who lived in various housing projects in Chicago. I grew up knowing that the people who lived in places like Robert Taylor or Ida B. Wells were a part of an experiment. It is a trip being under the microscope and aware that you are there so that Chicago could figure out its "Negro Problem". In the process of this experiment called housing projects there was an unforeseen side effect called systemic poverty and dangerous living.

MPAACT has given a real gift to the theater going public in revealing authentic portrayals of families from the Washington Park projects. Playwright Shepsu Aakhu tells the tale of a micro-community within the projects on one floor. Two women named Ivene (Carla Stillwell) and Clara (Demetria Thomas) have helped each other through the years, including sharing child rearing responsibilities. This is a tale of true sisterhood and brotherhood that opens your eyes to how the terms ‘my sister’ or ‘my brother’ evolved from the Black community.

MPAACT Chicago - Speaking in Tongues - Shepsu Aakhu
Ms. Stillwell is one of the gifted writers and directors from the MPAACT company. And in her portrayal of Ivene, I have witnessed the triple threat . Ivene came up from down South, children and man in tow. Ivene endures abuse and having to feed a house full of children on pennies literally. Ivene is raising a son, Michael (the brilliant Andre Teamer). All mothers worry about their sons, but that worry was multiplied tenfold if one grew up in the projects or the ‘jects’ as Michael calls them. Stillwell does a beautiful job projecting dignity and keeping it real without heading into what I call ‘amen corner hamming’. This is a character that is doing what she has to do without the stereotypical ‘suffering in dignity’ assigned to Black women on stage.

The same goes for the wonderful portrayal of Clara from Demetria Thomas. She embodies that lady on the block that you didn’t dare cross because she might shoot you! Keep in mind that a lot of people in the great Black Migration came from the South, and most everybody knew how to shoot. Ms. Thomas has some of the best lines in the show, especially when it comes to talking about her late husbands and other relationships. Her mannerisms and posture are the perfect picturing of an older woman holding up against being worn down by such a difficult life.

Andre Teamer is wonderful in his role as Michael, an honest rendering of a man’s life, whether or not race is involved. Mr. Teamer explains the mechanics of pitching pennies and running the streets with his best buddy Craig (Mateo Smith). Mr. Smith also shines in a dual role as the character Hicks. These characters are beautifully written and played, and Teamer and Smith manage to project sweet vulnerability as well as a sexy toughness in their roles. Everyday people are the hardest to write and portray, but here the playwright has written incredibly fresh characterizations of Black men.

Shariba Rivers plays the role of Tricia – the girl who got out. She is Clara’s oldest, and the one who was responsible and smart. This is a character who is sometimes maligned within the projects community. Once you get out and make something of yourself or manage to not fall victim to the system in which you were raised, there can be accusations of thinking ‘you’re too good’ etc. Ms. Rivers has an edge to her that shows how the character planned and envisioned her way out. Tricia is Clara’s pride and joy, holding up an example to the other children. The two actresses have a sweet and respectful symbiosis as mother and daughter and Ms. Rivers is stunning to behold in the role.

Kristin E. Ellis (portraying Ivene’s daughter, Jamie) gives a searing performance as a young woman who gets caught up in the wrong relationship and is labeled. Ms. Ellis lets Jamie’s anger build to a boiling point and then lets it seethe out. In one of her monologues describing an unfortunate incident, words are like acid meant to tear at the audience as much as it burns inside Jamie’s psyche. It is a brilliant performance.

Sidney Miller rounds out the cast in another dual role as Shirley and Doris Jean. One character is a neighbor, serving to introduce the story. The character of Doris Jean is a young lady who shares a love story with Hicks (Mateo Smith). Appearing in the earlier MPAACT production of Tad in 5th City (see our review ★★★½) as a comparatively minor character, it’s wonderful to see Miller expand her talents in this production. Their love story is a refreshing departure from the motifs of love against the odds in other Black themed plays.

The set for Speaking in Tongues is sparse and very evocative. Steel screens literally cage the characters in, symbolizing an unfortunate fact from America’s urban history: the balconies that gave the projects any sense of character were eventually caged in steel under the guise of protecting the citizens. Clara’s character gives an astute reading of the situation in saying that the CHA and Richard J. Daley provided a cage without any means of keeping it clean. Zoo animals were treated better.

This is an historically accurate piece from a time in Chicago that has literally been physically torn down. It seems that by tearing the projects down, the city authorities tried to bury the history and the memories. The news spoke of ‘a chapter closed’. Speaking in Tongues: The Chronicles of Babel keeps the truth alive – a giant step towards healing that not-so-long-ago moment in time. This is a brilliant play to which I give my highest recommendation. This is a play that older children should see as well. The language is honest and nothing that they haven’t heard before in lesser entertainment.

MPAACT has consistently offered up an excellent and realistic portrayal of Black life in Chicago and America. Go see this play. You will learn what was most likely skipped in your civics class.


Rating: ★★★★


MPAACT Chicago - Speaking in Tongues - Shepsu Aakhu

Speaking Tongues: The Chronicles of Babel continues through October 30th at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $21-$23, and can be purchased by phone (773-404-7336) or online at More information regarding the production or theater company can be found at




Kristin E. Ellis, Sidney Miller, Shariba Rivers, Mateo Smith, Carla Stillwell, Andre Teamer, Demetria Thomas

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