News & Articles

Big Shoulders, Small Change: American Buffalo in Chicago

by Rebecca Stevens, Artistic Apprentice

Open the script of American Buffalo and you'll find the setting simply reads "Don's Resale Shop. A junkshop." The shop's location in Chicago is never stated outright in the text, only inferred through the course of the play. A mention of Lake Shore Drive here, some leftover trinkets from Chicago events there; it all seems to add up to a little local flavor from Mamet, hailed by Chicago newspapers as the literary son of the city. At first glance the setting of this play seems inconsequential—even the The Cambridge Companion to Mamet readily places Don's Resale Shop on the South Side of Chicago, without any indication from the text or author that this is correct. But place the geographic locations Mamet mentions throughout the text (bars, hospitals, street names) on a map and something startling happens: all of these public spaces are located within a few blocks of each other in the North Side neighborhood of Lincoln Park. To bring the action of the play even closer to home, consider this: those city blocks are within walking distance of this very theatre. Suddenly, we know precisely where we are. We have walked the same streets and sidewalks as Donny, Bobby and Teach. The revelation that Mamet has set the action in a clearly-defined neighborhood—rather than a hazy incarnation of Chicago—teaches us something about how to understand the play. What seems ornamental is imbued with specificity—and from that specificity we may find a deeper understanding about the actions and intentions of our characters. It is worthwhile to turn our attention from the setting outside the junkshop to the setting of the junkshop itself and the objects the characters handle and discuss. A junkshop, after all, is a historical record made up of the objects of a certain place. Since the place in question is Chicago, it's little wonder that the objects in Donny's shop relate directly to the city's history. When Donny explains the significance of the cosmetic compact that Teach ­­­is holding by saying simply "They're from 1933," Donny asks, "From the thing?" Both men are talking about the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition, also known as the city's second World's Fair. Enacted in the midst of the Depression, the fair sought to restore confidence in science and industry, with nearly two dozen corporations displaying new products meant to modernize the home. The fair spurred such great consumer spending that President Franklin Roosevelt asked for it to reopen for another year to help stimulate the economy. Later, Teach holds up a strange object that Donny describes as "...a thing that they stick in dead pigs keep their legs apart all the blood runs out." This tool is undoubtedly left over from the meatpacking industry, the commercial stockyards so prevalent in Chicago that the poet Carl Sandburg famously dubbed the city "hog-butcher for the world." Spurred by the growth of the railroads that allowed livestock to be delivered in mass quantity, Chicago's meatpacking industry centered around three enormous corporations nicknamed the "Big Three Packers." These corporations influenced everything from railroad technology to meat and livestock prices. Their contentious labor laws and quality standards spurred both the infamous book The Jungle, detailing the brutal stockyard conditions, and the deadly Haymarket Square Riot as workers fought for the eight-hour work day. Even the pig iron, not seen in the shop but much discussed by the characters, belongs to a distinct Chicago moment. A pig iron, a piece of crude iron that creates steel when further processed, is a symbol of the steel and iron mills that once ruled Chicago's industry. In 1901, many of Chicago's largest mills combined to create U.S. Steel, the largest business enterprise in the world at its inception. These objects are leftovers from important economic moments in the city's history—periods in which big business and industry defined the values, pastimes and futures of its inhabitants. What does it mean that Mamet sets American Buffalo within a very specific collection of Chicago streets inside a junkshop composed of objects from Chicago's great economic past? What does all of this have to do with three men trying to pull a heist surrounding a Buffalo nickel? To answer these questions, we must dig deeper into the context Mamet gives us. If our geographic setting is both specific and significant, then perhaps the time period lends us clues to the story, as well. 1975, the year American Buffalo was first performed, found the neighborhood of Lincoln Park in the throes of change. The aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II saw an increase of African Americans and Puerto Ricans in the area. By the mid-1950s, some residents, believing the neighborhood verged on becoming a slum, formed the Lincoln Park Conservation Association, encouraging private rehabilitation and use of federal urban renewal funds on buildings and homes in the area. In 1964, the city officially joined neighborhood efforts with its "General Neighborhood Renewal Plan" that rehabilitated some homes and cleared others for high rises. Mamet's characters register these changes by referring to their Puerto Rican neighbors as "Mexicans" or "the spics" and bristling at the wealthy white man who bicycles to work and treats Donny "like...his fucking doorman." Donny, Teach and Bobby live in a neighborhood that has begun to change. Ethnically and culturally, they are no longer in familiar territory. Economically, they will shortly find themselves priced out of their homes. Lincoln Park's story is not unique to the city. Urban renewal funds, from both the city and the federal government, built the skyline of Chicago as we know it, including the Sears (now Willis) Tower and Hancock Building, both completed by the mid-1970s. These funds also sharply changed neighborhoods across the city as urban renewal projects altered the race, class and geographical layout of many communities. Pilsen, named by its Eastern European inhabitants for a city in the Czech Republic, became a hub of Mexican-American life. Clearance projects in Hyde Park transformed densely packed urban areas into semi-suburban streets. And in North Side neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park, increasingly wealthy tenants moved into newly renovated homes as working class residents moved out. Moreover, at the moment American Buffalo takes place, the economy fueling the city has begun to shift as well. Gone are the meatpackers, as stockyards moved closer to its livestock in Wisconsin and Indiana. In just a few short years the steel industry will crash as well, leaving thousands without work. With the loss of these industries, Chicago transforms from a blue collar town of Polish and Irish immigrants to a white collar town dominated by finance, tourism and the service sector, while neighborhoods fill with new immigrants from around the world. What is happening to the men in this shop, in this neighborhood, in this city is what is happening to the country itself. Industry begins to change. Blue collar men find themselves among new immigrants and in new economies. The American Dream is no longer familiar and certain. It shifts away from men who provided for their families with their hands, never to return. Just like the American buffalo depicted on the nickel that Donny seeks and the Native American on the reverse of that coin, Donny and Teach are at the end of their era, the last of their kind, as marginalized as the figures etched into metal. Unaware of this fate, they are left with nothing but the buffalo nickel they seek and the mistaken belief in who they are and what they can achieve.