Race is on everyone’s mind in this troubled age. It’s no coincidence that Atticus Finch is right now commanding Broadway prices at the Shubert Theatre. But you can find a penetrating and much more intimate theatrical evocation of this country’s racist history just six blocks downtown. Renata Hinrichs’ award-winning autobiographical solo show Random Acts, now in a limited run through March 2 at the TBG (The Barrow Group) Mainstage Theatre, powerfully recounts one woman’s formative years in Chicago during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and ’70s.
Most of Random Acts takes place when Hinrichs was just a little girl in the ’60s. The violence and prejudice she witnessed then marked her for life. Her father, a freshly minted Protestant minister, is assigned to a church on Chicago’s South Side, on the border of a white and a black neighborhood. Little Renata gets a ringside seat as her father, whom she depicts as a sort of clerical Atticus, advocates for tolerance and seeks to integrate his congregation.
Renata encounters racial tension as soon as she starts kindergarten. She’s beaten up by the older sister of a black classmate she innocently tried to befriend. White parishioners walk out when a black baby is christened. Rioting breaks out on their street when Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. Later, in high school, her black boyfriend’s football friends pressure him to abandon her.
Had a fiction writer created such events – and such a flashpoint situation for a child in the first place – one might fairly level a charge of contrivance. But Hinrichs presents these true-life stories with an easy mix of cleverness and charm, wisdom and innocence. Animated by skillful shifting from character to character, her likable performance grows easy to believe and hard to resist.
With both clarity and nuance she draws us into a young girl’s mind and world. And really it’s the whole production that builds that world. A checkerboard backdrop suggests both the stained glass in the church and the walls and windows of the city streets. News reports, sound effects, and soul and disco hits capture the times. Director Jessi D. Hill precisely tunes the pace and pathos of Hinrichs’ resonant story. Hill seems to have developed a special knack for making solo shows feel immersive, as she did with Human Fruit Bowl a few years ago.
Through all the trauma and trouble, the effervescent personality Hinrichs shows us never betrays her, or us. Racial justice has yet to be served in this nation, but these lingering wrongs don’t wreck everything. She, at least, appears to have made a rewarding life for herself unspoiled by bitterness. Thanks to social media, she even finds a balm for one of the biggest hurts of her youth. Of course, she grew up in a relatively privileged white family. But that doesn’t negate the value of her experience, what she has to say about it, or, most especially, the art she makes of it.
At the end, she dances offstage to the cool, smooth sounds of Earth, Wind and Fire, just as she danced on at the start. Dance your dance, she mutely says to us. Art and life are worth the effort, whether you can afford tickets to To Kill a Mockingbird or not.
Random Acts runs through March 2 at TGB Mainstage Theatre, 312 W. 36 St. For tickets visit the website or call 866-811-4111.