Steppenwolf's '1919' tells story of Black teenager killed for swimming in Lake Michigan

The white men seen hurling the rocks at Eugene Williams never faced justice.

ByHosea Sanders and Marsha Jordan WLS logo
Friday, October 28, 2022
'1919' tells story of Black teen killed for swimming in 'white' waters
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Steppenwolf Theatre play "1919" tells the story of Eugene Williams, a Black teen killed for swimming in Lake Michigan on the South Side of Chicago.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- "1919" is Steppenwolf's current hit drama. It's the true story of a heart wrenching act of racial hatred that killed a Black teenager taking a swim on a hot Chicago day.

The run is sold out, but the play is coming to city neighborhoods next week with free performances.

Eugene Williams, 17, was in Lake Michigan near the South Side shore. He drifted into what were considered "white" waters. That's when he was stoned and then drowned. The white men seen hurling the rocks never faced justice.

The play is based on Chicago poet Eve Ewing's writings.

Max Thomas is part of the cast who'll perform "1919" at five Park District centers next week. Steppenwolf especially wants young people to be part of this event.

"I'm a native South Sider. I still live on the South Side of Chicago, so for me, it's amazing," Thomas said. "I'm expecting it to be a community gathering of us learning, of us educating each other and us being able to have a great conversation of how we can move forward so this horrible violence doesn't happen again."

The neighborhood tour is an extension of the Steppenwolf program for young people at the theatre.

"We're still living in such a segregated city, you have many of the students that come here, this is their first time on the North Side, first time at Steppenwolf, first time seeing a play," Thomas said. "I'm honored that I'm part of their first experience."

The company's education partnerships help take these stories to the people.

"This is Chicago history, not just Black history. It is American history," said Rae Chardonnay Taylor, manager of education partnerships. "Seeing it presented in this theatre in such a beautiful format, ignites me in a way and makes we want to be sure that other people throughout the city get to hear this story, and that it doesn't just live on the North Side in this theatre."

Taylor explained the type of experience students will get.

"When the students are there, they get a pre-show speech and they have a moment to be in conversation with the actors and other artists involved with the making of the play and as we move out into the community, they'll have the same opportunity," Taylor said.

Thomas encouraged everyone to come out and see the play.

"Bring your whole family, and be ready to have a great, thought provoking conversation and be blown away, but come ready to celebrate the life of Eugene Williams," Thomas said.

Registration isn't necessary, but it's the best way to make sure you get a seat. Click here for details.