'No Blue Memories' gives glimpse of Gwendolyn Brooks' literary life, legacy

Wednesday, 15 November 2017, 05:33:18 AM. Eve Ewing and Nate Marshall have joined forces with Manual Cinema and The Poetry Foundation to create 'No Blue Memories,' a play about Gwendolyn Brooks' literary life.

Poet. Teacher. Mentor. All are words synonymous with Gwendolyn Brooks.

Born in Topeka, Kan., in 1917, Brooks made her name as a poet in Chicago. A Bronzeville resident, she grew up writing — writing about what she saw and heard in the street. In 1950, she was catapulted to national prominence when her second book of poetry, "Annie Allen," won a . At the time, her community was a dense hotbed for African-American art and music.

She is the subject of a new play, “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks,” which will be staged in three performances this weekend at the Harold Washington Library Center. Produced by Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based company known for theater works combining live action and projections, “No Blue Memories” was written by Eve Ewing and Nate Marshall, both of Young Chicago Authors fame, from a commission by the Poetry Foundation.

The play touches on her character, love of language and a legacy that has never dimmed. “No Blue Memories” combines intricate paper puppetry, live actors working in shadow and an original score to create a unique multimedia experience that gives the audience glimpses of her greatness — glimpses anchored by what has come to be known as the “golden shovel,” a poetic form she has passed on to newer generations.

Elizabeth Burke-Dain, media and marketing director at the Poetry Foundation, thinks of the play as a “gift to Chicago from the Poetry Foundation in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks.” It was commissioned to celebrate Brooks’ centenary.

“I see this as a love letter from Gwendolyn Brooks hailing beyond the grave,” she said. “I think in some ways, she’s speaking through them (Eve and Nate). Her legacy speaks through them. … They are the Gwendolyn Brooks of today.”

Ewing considers “No Blue Memories,” her first produced play, “a dream gig.”

The Tribune followed Ewing and Marshall’s creation from concept to completion.

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The writing duo began by poring over the Gwendolyn E. Brooks Archive at the University of Illinois.

Brooks did not lead a particularly colorful or loud life. She lived and worked quietly on the South Side, preferring to spend much of her free time in schools with youngsters. She read her work to children, the incarcerated and patients in Cook County Hospital. She left those who heard her read spellbound. She worked at the South Side Community Arts Center (recently named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation) and made appearances there. Her works capture the black experience in a way that is timeless. Poet laureate of Illinois and the nation, she received more than 70 honorary degrees during her lifetime. Her name is engraved on the Illinois State Library in Springfield.

A year after her death in 2000, the then-director of 's Gwendolyn Brooks Center, B.J. Bolden, wrote of her in the Chicago Tribune: “In the popular world, she is a hero of the community. People see her as an ordinary person who really was extraordinary. She claimed to be humble. She wanted to be with the people. But she was a monumental role figure. She heightened awareness of the need for community. She was our truth-teller.”

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