ST. LOUIS — The Ville: Avengeance! —The play supported by St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Streets, (a grassroots theatrical experience that invites St. Louis neighborhoods to tell their stories) is just what the doctor ordered.
For three nights, Sept. 9-11, guests filled every seat stretched out in front of the Annie Malone Children & Family Services Center to watch and listen to the history of The Ville, as soundtracked by Shakespeare, the Legend Singers Choral Ensemble, and original dramatic writing by and for the neighborhood.
Originally named Elleardsville after florist and horticulturist Charles Elleard, The Ville was once a thriving African American neighborhood home to plentiful businesses, stellar educational systems, affordable housing, and various attractions. It was incorporated in 1876 and its name was shortened to “The Ville.”
The work, written by Mariah Richardson and directed by Thomasina Clarke, provides a deep history lesson and retrospection on how The Ville was during the 1900s.
Inspired by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it follows a similar plot with the ghosts of people’s past sharing stories and delivering information about various people, places and events.
But it also is a modern urban tale as it follows the life of Hamlet Simmons, a young man who is forced to choose between two possible fates: Will he move into the old house his grandfather left him in The Ville and begin revitalization work to restore the neighborhood? Or will he instead continue living in the county and hold a nonchalant attitude toward his community?
As he ponders his next move, he and his best friend Horatio are — like the original Hamlet — met by ghosts: first, a narrator, then the ghost of Annie Malone herself, then finally a young man known only as “Hopeless.” These ghosts advise Hamlet, and teach him the history of the neighborhood that he starts the play desperate to leave behind.
The show opens with the narrator standing alone in front of the Annie Malone Center (formerly the St. Louis Colored Orphans’ Home), telling the story of the annual Annie Malone May Day Parade. She walks the audience down memory lane, painting the legacy of Malone herself — one of the first Black women millionaires, with an unflinching devotion to the children and families of her community — and of the ways in which the Ville was redlined, abandoned, and pushed from a jewel of Black St. Louis towards the state of decay much of the neighborhood is in today.
She informs the audience that the parade proudly occupied The Ville neighborhood for more than 100 years before moving to Market Street in downtown St. Louis. (Last year and this year’s parade were held virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.)
Malone’s ghost questions why the celebration moved from its original meeting place. The young gun violence victim,withHopeless, like his name, has no optimism. He shares that it relocated away from “the hood” due to gun violence and fights.
Malone is taken aback by him referring to The Ville as the hood. Her quest to figure out what happened to her beloved neighborhood sets the tone for the story..
To provide more insight and dig deeper on why The Ville matters, Malone and Jay each take turns feeding knowledge to Hopeless, Horatio, and Hamlet.
Larkin’s Shoe Repair, Joe’s Music Shop, Atkinson Grocery Store, and Billy Burt’s are just a few of the booming businesses that existed in earlier years inside The Ville neighborhood. As these businesses were mentioned in the play during flashback scenes, audience members recognized the landmarks of their home, and cheered.
While Jay and Malone conducted history lessons, a voice periodically projected from the speakers said “Extra, Extra read all about it” and read headlines from St. Louis’ Black papers: the Sentinel, the Argus, and of course, the American.
The headlines varied; one about St. Louis Sentinel reports desegregation program in-development and even one from The St. Louis American about the destruction of Mill Creek Valley (A former Black neighborhood tore down to build Highway 40/Interstate 64).
After Mill Creek was destroyed, Black people were redlined to The Ville (Blacks were refused loan access at banks due to their skin color and only allowed to live in areas with their race). Then when the supreme court ruled Brown v. Board of Education’s case unconstitutional for schools to be segregated, schools became integrated.
While schools became integrated Sumner High School (originally sat on the corner of Saint Ferdinand and Pendleton) remained a powerful beacon for Black students to receive a high-level education and participate in endless extracurricular activities such as chess club, drama club, and more. It is also highly praised for its a capella choir that was led by Dr. Kenneth Brown Billups. This choir appeared in the play, singing during interludes in the action.
The Legend Singers Choral Ensemble founded by Billups in 1940 performed two spirituals “Witness,” arranged by Jack Halloran, and “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” arranged by Billups in tribute to him.
Notable Sumner alumni were shouted out including Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Arthur Ashe, Mariah Richardson, Michelle Dillard and Wiley Price II, the city’s first Black DJ.
Horatio asks if Price takes photos for The St. Louis American — mistaking Price III for his father — and Simmons, surprised that his friend even knew about the newspaper, asked if he read it. Horatio responded it has great pictures and Jay clarified that Price III is Price II’s son.
“What would the Ville look like if people returned to breathe life back into this area?” Jay asks the audience. This, then, is the primary question the play poses to its audience: to be or not to be, to return to a place left for dead or let the past go.
Malone replied, “Demand schools stay open, abolish redlining, and stop letting the city dismantle The Ville brick-by-brick.”
As Malone continues persuading Simmons to stay in The Ville, the production concludes with her asking Hamlet “What Is Your Answer” and the phrase scrolling across the screen.
Congresswoman Cori Bush was featured in a slide presentation during the play that showed Black women political changemakers alongside Mayor Tishaura Jones and Alderwoman Dwinderlin Evans (to the delight of the fictionalized Malone, who never saw such Black women politicians in her own lifetime). Bush hopped up on stage to speak after the show, saying it was amazing and she’s never seen anything like it before — especially right in the community.
“Thank you for what you all have given us. Thank you for what you’ve shown us and for this work. I learned so much sitting there that I didn’t know about The Ville. This is how we continue on legacy, we gotta teach it.” she said. And that’s what the show teaches audiences: to learn, to teach, and perhaps, to return with Avengeance.