Passage Theatre Presents an Online Reading of “Welcome to Matteson!”; Tensions Erupt at a Dinner for New Neighbors in Inda Craig-Galván’s Comedy
“WELCOME TO MATTESON!”: Passage Theatre presented, to ticketed viewers, an online reading of “Welcome to Matteson!” Written by Inda Craig-Galván (above), and directed by Andrew Binger, the dark comedy depicts the class tensions that erupt when a couple is forcibly relocated from a housing project to a more affluent suburb. (Photo by Julián Juaquín)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Passage Theatre has presented a live online reading of Welcome to Matteson! Inda Craig-Galván’s poignant comedy portrays “a suburban couple that hosts a welcome-to-the-neighborhood dinner party for their new neighbors, a couple recently (forcibly) relocated from Chicago’s roughest housing project,” notes a press release, which adds that the dinner turns out to be “anything but welcoming.”
“The play, at heart, is about how we relate to each other, how we value things over people,” Craig-Galván says. “It’s taken on sort of a different feel, now that we are in our own bubbles, and our own seclusion.”
As with Passage’s presentation of the prerecorded Panther Hollow last month, the reading was treated as a theatrical event. The purchase of a ticket entitled audiences to watch the livestream via Zoom on November 21, or the recording on YouTube through November 25.
Craig-Galván is developing new works with theater companies such as Primary Stages and Company One. She has received awards such as the Jeffry Melnick New Playwright Award, Blue Ink Playwriting Prize, and Stage Raw Best Playwright Award. She is a writer on the CBS All Access series Happy Face, and previously was a writer for How to Get Away with Murder and The Rookie, both for ABC. The reading of Welcome to Matteson! is her first collaboration with Passage.
Passage Theatre Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues discovered Welcome to Matteson! via New Play Exchange, an online database where playwrights can post their work. Craig-Galván appreciates the extent to which Passage has “been really supportive, and great about wanting to present this piece as a virtual production.”
For director Andrew Binger, Welcome to Matteson! reflects “how our society and civilization creates barriers and divides us, even when we have a lot of similarities. In the play, an African American couple [has] dinner with another African American couple. You would think that the identity would unite them, connect them in some capacity. But because one couple is from the inner cities — a housing project — and lives in poverty; and the other couple is relatively wealthy, and lives in an affluent neighborhood, those things divide them.”
The presentation opens with Binger reading a description of the characters. Patricia (portrayed by Nicole Stacie) is “a longtime resident of Matteson, Illinois. Maybe she deserves everything she has, but don’t be the one to question her about it.” Patricia’s husband, Gerald (Jamil A.C. Mangan) “loves his single malts — and his wife, despite…”
Regina (Gha’il Rhodes Benjamin) is “newly relocated from the newly demolished Cabrini-Green housing projects. All street sense; more book sense than most give her credit.” Corey (Richard Bradford) is “happily married to Regina, Cabrini-born and raised. Wouldn’t change any of it, but change is inevitable.”
A prologue takes place “some time in the past, just before [the characters’] world changes.” It is Christmas, as is indicated by a snowy screen. (Every actor is given the same backgrounds, which serve as the play’s scenery.) Gerald has led Patricia outside their elegant-looking home, where he surprises her with a new Mercedes. After they kiss, Gerald asks rhetorically, “You want to get out of here?” Mangan remarks that the charming Gerald is “the quintessential mediator — and pleaser!“
The bulk of the play takes place in December 2009. The first scene finds them inside their house, where the mood is considerably more tense, as they are preparing to host a “welcoming” dinner for Regina and Corey. The haughty Patricia scarcely could be a less enthusiastic hostess, as she resents the fact of her new neighbors.
Noting that Patricia is the block president, Mangan explains that Gerald and Patricia “are part of the welcome committee; we welcome new families. But … the problem is this fear of the other: ‘Oh my goodness, these people are going to break down my property value. These people are going to bring all of the things that are happening in the city of Chicago to my neighborhood.’”
When Regina and Corey arrive, the evening begins cordially enough. However, Patricia’s bias — paired with general tension — soon derails the evening, as subtle barbs lead to outright confrontation. Matters are not helped when a psychology game, led by Regina, exposes cracks in Gerald and Patricia’s relationship. We also discover that Patricia’s opposition to the arrival of the new couple has gone beyond a hostile dinner conversation.
Mangan notes that the play examines “the divide — in terms of economic status, social status. So often we can equate that with the racial divide. But here [is] an affluent Black family who, because of their social status, and their need to climb up the social ladder, have their biases, and look down on the lower socially classed Black family that comes to move into the neighborhood.” He adds that the play offers us a chance to “put the mirror up to ourselves, and examine our own biases — and our own fears of ‘the others’ who are different.”
Craig-Galván remarks that the play “is an exploration into how these characters exist, what they believe, and how different they are from one another, and what their individual wants and needs are, outside of a white gaze. It’s important that we tell our story without the lens of racism.”
She started writing Welcome to Matteson! “a couple of years ago, when I was in grad school.” The idea came about because “I had lived in the south suburbs of Chicago — right next door to Matteson, Illinois. So I was there at the time of the relocation of former Cabrini residents. It was always on my mind that this was an insular, strange occurrence that the rest of the world may not have known about.” She adds, “I tend to write about Chicago, because that’s where I’m from.”
Discussing the play with Craig-Galván gave Binger some insight into “the mindset that Inda was in as she crafted this piece. There are aspects of her personal life … represented in the words on the page.” He adds, “I always feel like it’s important to have a healthy dialogue with the playwright, because you want to do them the honor of bringing their work to life — by honoring the words they put on the page, and story that they’re working to tell.”
Binger commends Passage for “always doing work that is not necessarily easy [or] tidy. The reason why I’ve been drawn to the work that they’ve done is that they [present] challenging works that ask important questions about our society, works by writers that are on the cusp of really important questions and conversations.”
Mangan agrees. He hopes that audiences come away from the reading with an “appreciation that organizations like Passage Theatre are still running to create art, by any means necessary. This is a wonderful time, in the mean time, to come together as patrons, [and] as artists, and enjoy good storytelling.”
Welcome to Matteson! “is a play about bigotry, presupposed prejudices, and how these characters are relating to each other,” Craig-Galván concludes. “I love telling stories about people of color just existing in the world, and this is one of those stories.”
For information about Passage Theatre’s upcoming events, visit passagetheatre.org.