Heat Wave: A Sociological Drama Hits Center Stage
by Ellen C. Berrey, Northwestern University
A number of recent plays have shown that important non-fiction stories can translate beautifully on stage. The Exonerated, for example, draws on interviews with wrongly convicted former Death Row prisoners, while Tings Dey Happen chronicles the oil wars in Nigeria. A new theater production in Chicago brings the sociology of urban disaster into the limelight. Live Bait Theater and Pegasus Productions have co-produced a new play, Heat Wave, based on sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s award-winning book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Klinenberg, New York University, documents the 1995 Chicago heat wave, when more than 700 people died in less than a week. In Heat Wave,
Klinenberg interrogates the political and social forces that contributed to this disaster, combining sociological analysis with the muckraking voice of early 20th century journalists. The book recounts the city government’s inadequate response, the incomplete accounts of reporters and scientists, and the devastation of the city’s most vulnerable and socially isolated residents— the elderly, poor people, and people of color.
Sharon Evans, artistic director for Live Bait Theater, discovered Heat Wave through an article in The New Yorker. Live Bait, known for its original productions and solo performances, often features plays about Chicago. According to Evans, “Heat Wave was a true Chicago story, top to bottom.” She contacted Chicago playwright Steven Simoncic to write the script and invited Ilesa Duncan of Chicago Dramatists to direct it. They were struck by the human story of the heat wave and the eerie foreshadowing of Hurricane Katrina—the environmental disaster, social tragedy, the last minute and botched political decisions.
Translating Sociology to Stage
Simoncic adapts the events of the 1995 heat wave—and much of Klinenberg’s study—for the stage. Three key institutions are the play’s through-lines: the mayor’s office; the Chicago Tribune office; and the city morgue. Scenes from these three settings are interspersed with intimate portraits of city residents, their personal stories and emotional moments. Middle managers and residents are the main characters; Mayor Richard Daley, city commissioners, and Tribune owners are imagined, off-stage but ever present.
So, what are the challenges to translating sociological analysis to the stage? As Live Bait executive director John Ragir explained: "How do you take a book full of stories, used as examples of inductive reasoning, and turn those stories into drama? We want an emotional, dramatic impact, as opposed to a theoretical insight of sociology."
The playwright and director did not have to look far for the drama since Klinenberg had meticulously documented how people in different institutions, organizations, and neighborhoods experienced the heat and responded to it—or failed to respond. The study embodied what Ragir described as Klinenberg’s "heartfelt but precise way of thinking about catastrophe." Simoncic used the text as a launching point to create fictionalized characters and stories: The elderly man alone on his deathbed; the nervous government aides protecting city officials; the overwhelmed Latina daycare worker who forgets two children in a locked car where they die.
Drama also is embedded in the conflict that Klinenberg reveals: the tensions between city agencies, public servants, reporters, and the people they are supposed to serve.
The tragedy’s own narrative arc—the anticipation of the heat wave, followed by the confusion, pain, and tragedy of the heat and then the aftermath of discovery and accusations—made it well-suited for the stage.
Playwrights, producers, and directors have story-telling conventions that can dramatize sociological insights. Simoncic was able to use the structure of the play to embellish both abstract structural processes and the daily lives of regular people. Scenes from the mayor’s office, the Tribune, and the morgue are written from a removed vantage point. Characters talk about the "city populace," "political decisions," "urban ecology," the "socioeconomics of cooling centers." According to Simoncic, it is "more distanced," "less personal."
Contributing to the Debate
Through the stories of city residents, people share their personal experiences in their own voices. "In some scenes, you might get people talking about the sociological effects of the heat and what’s going on with race relations," said Simoncic, "but [then there’s] a scene with a white cop and a black gang member, arguing over a fire hydrant. The camera zooms from 30,000 feet up to six feet off the ground."
Klinenberg wrote this book with a conviction that sociologists should communicate about inequality and disaster to the public. "We have so much to contribute to current debates about cities and the politics of security," Klinenberg said. "But the barriers to entering them can be formidable. For projects like Heat Wave, I’ve tried to find a voice that resonates within the academy but carries outside it too. Some say that it’s risky behavior for a social scientist, but I think it’s worth it."
Simoncic hopes the play gets people to think about responsibility. "Who is responsible for the people on the fringes of the modern American village?" With Heat Wave, theatergoers in Chicago will have an opportunity to ponder this very question.
The premiere of Heat Wave runs February 21-April 6. For more information, see www.pegasusplayers.org or call (773) 878-9761. Group rates for sociology courses are available. Pegasus Productions, O’Rourke Center, Truman College, 1145 West Wilson Avenue, Chicago, IL 60640.