It’s easy to get so caught up in the humor and seriousness of Congo Square Theatre’s latest play, “Welcome to Matteson,” that you can overlook the production’s plot. Something that will really make you think. There’s also a plot twist in Den Theater’s “A Hit Dog Will Holler.” Both works are from the mind of Inda Craig-Galván, a native of the Jeffery Manor neighborhood.
The first play examines issues of housing injustice, “not in my backyard” mentality, and classism, while the second looks at the relationship between two Black women in the current political/pandemic climate of activism and social media influencers. Issues of mental health, racism, fear, authenticity, and survival as a Black woman in America are present in “A Hit Dog Will Holler.” Meanwhile, “Welcome to Matteson” is based on the south suburban area and what happened as Cabrini-Green came down and its residents moved into the predominantly Black village.
And it all started thanks to one of Craig-Galván’s best friends, whose family lived in Matteson while he was in college. Her friend bought a house in the nearby village of Park Forest, and Craig-Galván and her husband did the same.
“We bought a house in Park Forest in the early 2000s,” Craig-Galván said. “Our goal was to eventually sell that house and buy a house in Homewood or Matteson. But things happened, including the housing market bubble bursting. So we moved to Los Angeles.”
Craig-Galván remembers that she really loved the area, that it was a small community that wanted integration, had resources for residents, and where people cared and cared about where they lived. “I was close enough to the city to do all the fun things in Chicago and far enough away to feel like I was in a small town,” he said. The first draft of “Welcome to Matteson” was born last year, when Craig-Galván was in the Master of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing program at the University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts.
“Most of my plays are set in Chicago because that’s where I’m from,” Craig-Galván said. “I have two productions in Chicago about plays that are being performed simultaneously in Chicago as a result of a confluence of events.”
We talk with Craig-Galván about his work on and off stage, his career, and Black theater in Chicago. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: This play is set in Matteson, but will people reference it when it’s played across the country? Is Matteson just any town in America?
A: I try to write really specific stories, stories that affect people I know or have been with. And the more specific it gets, the more universal it becomes in a way because these are themes that everyone experiences, and housing inequality is experienced everywhere. This very specific thing, like residents moving from Cabrini-Green to the southern suburbs, is unique to us, but there’s still this idea of reverse gentrification and people are holding on very tightly to the ideas of housing and ownership. people unionizing and all the strikes that are happening are people realizing that no matter how much control you think you have in your own situation, there are people making way more money off your labor and your situation. So much so that everyone is waking up and realizing that we need to change some things because we can’t control some things. A lot of it is about money.
Q: You have two very different stories that deal with aspects of our society; Who are the audience of the work?
A: I think there’s something for everyone… “Look what happens when you do this.” I write primarily for Black audiences. I write what I want to see. So (“Welcome to Matteson”) speaks to the Patricias and Geralds, bougie folk who judge other people or exclude other people. May there still be happy Reginas and Coreys. They are the most uplifting people in this game because they don’t necessarily accept their fate or lot in life. But they find joy no matter what everyone thinks of them and no matter what they have to go through, they will still find a way to be happy and love each other. So I think there’s something for everyone, and I try not to blame or call anyone the bad guy except Mayor Daley (laughs).
There is a similar element of judgment in “A Hit Dog Will Holler.” And that’s when they encounter this high emotion, that’s when that monster rears its ugly head and becomes real. Again, they are two very different people, but they are both Black, they are both experiencing the same time, they are experiencing it in very similar ways, and they are having to deal with very similar traumas. And unfortunately this affects us all.
Q: Can you explain what the plot means without giving away the endings?
A: People who have no control. These people live in a place, they behave in a way that they think is right, useful or helpful to them, but they struggle, they face difficulties, they love, they are not that loving. But ultimately everything is controlled by an external force. This is our reality. However, we must be kind to each other, respectful, and recognize that no matter our differences, we are all in this together. Even though we have no control, we should all be nice to each other.
Question: Chris Jones of The Tribune I recently wrote an article You’ve looked at the theater scene in Chicago, do you have any thoughts about the scene now?
A: There was a sentence that said there were success stories in cinemas that bucked the trend. However, we did not delve into this subject in our article. We didn’t talk about Eta or the Congo Square Theatre. There was an article in it Michael Bobbitt’s American Theater More than two years ago, he said the boards (board of directors) were corrupt. Do you have artists on your boards? Do you have people of color on your boards? Because boards have a lot of input. It’s okay if black people don’t want to go to the theater. We want to see ourselves, and we want to see shows that speak to us. … Location is not the problem. It is the content in the scenes.
That’s also where the money goes. There was one thing in the article that I totally agreed with: You can do theater without a brand new, big, expensive building, but you can’t do it without artists. If artists don’t feel valued, if the new work that artists create is not valued, if it’s not supported, and if it’s not given all the resources and support that you would give a Shakespeare play, then where are these artists going to go? The artist is not the medium, the artist is the first person, and if you’re not committed to developing new work and then programming that new work, then you’re not going to have new exciting things for the audience to see.
A lot of theaters have made a lot of progress during and before the pandemic, but if you’re not programming these plays you’re reading, what’s the message you’re sending to artists? I don’t know what the answer is because this is happening everywhere, all over the country; theaters are being canceled or closed, limiting their seasons. But obviously people are going out, people are spending money on Beyonce and Taylor Swift. People go on vacation. People are still spending money, but if you’re not showing them something they want to come see, then it’s not necessarily about the tickets.
Question: Did you always want to be a playwright? You also write for ABC’s “Will Trent.”
A: I’m excited to be back with season two. We have been renewed for a second season. We’re in the middle of a labor movement right now, but we’ll be back. I was wary of working on another crime series because I didn’t want to write characters who spread propaganda. This show came my way, I read the pilot and loved it. I loved how this book series, where most of the characters were white, was reimagined for the TV series, where there were a lot of black people who were actually themselves. Our lead character is a Puerto Rican man, Ramon Rodriguez, whose character Will Trent is just learning about his own past. So we will dig into this further; Her character is an orphan, several characters are, and considering what that means, what happened after she left the system? What tools or resources were or were not given to them? How do those orphans, who have never been adopted and have never had a permanent home, continue to cope with life? He also has dyslexia. There are a lot of specific things we’re dealing with in this show, it’s grounded and I love it.
In the beginning, I wanted to be an actor. I was acting in Chicago. A lot of times when I was working on new games I would have all these questions and notes. I think it was the playwright in me trying to get out and try to do some dramaturgy because there were stories inside of me that I found different ways to tell what was going on on the page. Then I started taking classes at Second City and started doing and writing sketch comedy. I thought I had a five-minute sketch in me at most. But after moving to Los Angeles, I still wanted to write. I didn’t have it Mine My sketching partner is now in Chicago. I still thought about how I could express myself and create work that excited me and felt personal to me. Maybe I should just be a writer. So there was the path to actor, then sketch comedy writer/performer, then playwright, then television.
Now, I’m in a place where I’m on a show that I love, where I’m really creative and throwing out my ideas and writing the way I write… My showrunners are great at saying yes, and they’re great at really asking for everyone’s opinion. View the room to be on that page. And now I develop the shows myself so I don’t have to sacrifice artistry to work in television, and that’s a luxury and probably the best move I’ve ever made, moving away from things I do just for the sake of it. money and making things that feel like art to me.
“A Hit Dog Will Holler” is at the Den Theater, 1331 N. Milwaukee, through Sept. 17; tickets $25 thedentheatre.com. The “Welcome to Matteson” program will be held through Oct. 1 at Abbott Hall, Northwestern University Chicago Campus, 710 N. DuSable Lake Shore Drive; tickets $45 kongosquaretheatre.org