History Takes Stage in ‘Red Summer’

Remembering a Painful Past to Produce a Fruitful Future


By Zoe Miller, Spartan Staff

Imagine coming home from serving your country and fighting for your life during the “War to End All Wars,” only to fear bullets shooting into your front yard, only to fight for equality within your city. 

This story is central to the musical Red Summer, which recently made its debut at Governors State University to an audience that included nearly 40 Marian Catholic students in English, history and theater classes.  


The stage is set for the historical musical ‘Red Summer.’ (Photo by Zoe Miller)


The Play

Produced by MPAACT, written by Shepsu Aakhu and Andrew White and composed by music maestro Shawn Wallace, the play is based on a major historical event: the Chicago race riots of 1919.  

At the center of the city more than 100 years ago, this play unwinds the story of two World War One soldiers after their return from Europe, One of the aspects that makes this story so engaging is how the story is told through song, from the contrasting (yet surprisingly similar) viewpoints of DL Winters (played by Nathaniel Andrews) who is Black, and Conner Weir (played by Ryan Huemmer), who is white and Irish, both living in neighboring yet segregated sections of the city.

These separate and unequal lives – viewed at opposite ends of the stage – set the scene for a story rooted in real-life events and characters who are able to quickly connect with the audience. There is the journalist and truth-teller Ida B. Wells (played by Melanie Victoria) and Chicago Mayor Thompson (played by Bob Sanders).  Even characters seemingly as trivial as a singing fresh fruit vendor are vital to the giving the story weight. 

The story, the acting, the writing, is nothing short of brilliant. Red Summer is one of the best historical fiction musicals an audience might be fortunate to see. 


Composer Shawn Wallace before the musical begin. (Photo by Zoe Miller)


 The Players

When I arrived at the theater, the stage pieces were set and the musicians were rehearsing in the corner. 

Composer Shawn Wallace walked over from behind the keyboard and, along with playwright Aakhu and the show’s choreographer Chloe Belongilot, discussed how to the musical developed. Wallace said the music took “patience” to create. 

“With music, you can’t just write lyrics,” Wallace said. “You have to let them come to you.”

As Red Summer builds, Wallace’s patience definitely pays off. Each song is filled with emotion and purpose. The standout musical number was “The Ballad of Eugene Williams” sung beautifully by Michaelyn Oby. The song explains the tragedy to come, recorded differently at the time by newspapers like the Chicago Defender and Chicago Tribune.  



While history informed the script and lyrics, Wallace told The Spartan Star that cast members like Victoria helped to influence the direction of the soundtrack. 

“[The actress] who portrayed Ida B. Wells is from New Orleans,” Wallace said. “I based her solos strongly off of that fact. The actors impacted all the music.” 

Similarly, Belongilot, both a cast member and the choreographer, told The Spartan Star that this dual role helped to provide “special” insight into what audiences see. 

“I got to look at everything from a different perspective. Like when actors are on stage and the director is like ‘Oh, move to the left,’ you just do what you’re told but when I would sit in the audience with Andrea [Dymond, Red Summer director] it would make sense.”


High school students from suburban Chicago ready to watch ‘Red Summer’ at Governors State University. (Photo by Zoe Miller)


Re: Play

Playwrights Aakhu and White have been friends and colleagues for 30 years, working in the Chicago theater community. Red Summer is the first project that they wrote as a duo. The process, Aakhu said, started in 2017, as a response to the racial divisions growing at that point in America. 

As an African American playwright, Aakhu wanted to tell a story that was close to his heart; the 1919 Chicago race riots. White and Wallace joined the project. 

Although the events of Red Summer took place more than a century ago, this musical exploration of racial tension, as well as a global pandemic that took the lives of millions, serves as a striking wake-up call that history has indeed repeated itself.  This reality was not lost on the mostly high school audience that attended the performance with our group from Marian. 

Some names of the people who’ve been lost to violence over the past 10 years remain at the front of many of our minds: 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, 18-year-old Michael Brown, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor and 46-year-old George Floyd.  

Red Summer perfectly presents modern issues from a historic lens, making education digestible and fun. As I watched all these high school students in the audience, clapping, laughing, and openly feeling the musical’s message, I knew this was something special. Like Hamilton-level special. 

Red Summer is one of the most well-done, awe-inspiring musicals I’ve ever seen. The actors, the stage crew, the writers, the musicians, and the director created such a masterpiece, I was crying by the end of it. Everything about it felt genuine. You can tell the effort and care that went into producing the show. I wish I could erase my memory just so I could get the opportunity to watch it again, for the first time.