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Stage Musical Takes A Bleak Look at Life In Public Housing

`Project!' targets Chicago's Cabrini Green

`PROJECT!' - the spirited musical about life in the Chicago public-housing project known as Cabrini Green - has just swooped in and out of the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center here in less than a week. But somewhere in its ongoing national tour there should be a command performance for half the administration and all of Congress. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is responsible for such housing projects, should be at the top of the list. The notorious project in the Windy City - where sudden death is a lifestyle; where violence, drugs, and gangs are rampant; and where children have no childhood - is the subject of this exuberant ``musical documentary,'' which ends on a note of hope.

But the play also offers a firsthand insider's look at the despair, hunger, and imprisoning life in public housing presented by people who actually live there. Most of the cast are residents of Cabrini Green who have joined in a community arts program with Chicago's Free Street Theater.

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``Project!'' brings the inhumanity of it all it home to theatergoers in a way no Senate hearing or massive HUD report ever could. Visually, the play would also be a natural for PBS. It is also - particularly in Act 1 - lively multimedia theater.

Cabrini Green's kids and parents prance out on stage and sing, dance, and rap about their lives in this government-financed ghetto. Their backdrop is a set that looks like a huge folding screen with shelves, on which are stacked nearly 60 TV monitors interspersed with tall wire cages, where members of the cast perform.

About 20 Cabrini Green residents appear in the video portion of the production, talking viscerally about their lives. Their words and images flash across several dozen TV screens at once, creating a surreal effect.

``There's a lot of fathers there, but there's no Daddys there,'' says a Cabrini Green mother on TV.

A father in his 30s says, ``The generation coming up now - we take a bunch of children and throw away their lives.''

The residents trace the disintegration of government's resident-acceptance standards and the rise of gangs, which have divided the project into fiercely patroled tribal fiefdoms where various gangs ``own'' the turf occupied by the school or grocery store, and rival gangs face violence or even death.

We meet the grieving mother whose deaf son died in the crossfire of shooting he never heard, the woman who has nothing left to eat in her refrigerator but one egg-salad sandwich and water, the man who tells of the boy they hear screaming in the street, ``They shot me!'' before a gang moves in and finishes him off.

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As a black member of the audience told a friend after the ``Cabrini Green'' show: ``If you don't live in there, you don't go near there. It's really bad.''

Behind the words is the beat of music, rousing and strong, in songs like the opening ``Some of That,'' and ``War Zone,'' ``Women's Blues,'' and ``In Spite of All,'' with its insistent line: ``I'm gonna fight the battle 'til I am free.''

The talented cast includes three Actors Equity members among the Cabrini Green residents, who sing Doug Lofstrom's music with lyrics by Tricia Alexander and Patrick Henry, and dance to the choreography of Donald Douglass. Among the standouts in the cast are Catherine Stephans, whose voice is like sweet lightning, and Stephen Finch as a street troubadour with a deep, thrilling sound.

Although Act 1 goes off like a rocket under Donald Douglass's explosive direction, Act 2 droops a bit. It needs more work and tighter, crisper pacing.

``Project!'' was developed by the Free Street Theater's founder, Patrick Henry, along with Free Street's artistic staff and Cabrini Green residents in 1985. It goes next to the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta during July, though exact dates have not yet been set.

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