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Robots, racism, theatrical one-of-a-kind in store from 16th Street Theater of Berwyn

In a first for 16th Street Theater of Berwyn, an audio play with original illustrations – "Rastus and Hattie" – will open Sept. 24.

The play by Lisa Langford is the story of Needra and Marlene, who enjoy a perfect post-racial friendship until two problematic robots walk into their christening celebration, a news release stated. Based on Westinghouse’s 1930 brown-skinned robots, these automatons, plus a glitch in the time-space continuum, place them at opposite ends of society in an alternate past. The provocative comedy jumps from the outrageous to the profound as it delves into our traumatic legacy and explores new ideas about moving forward, the release stated.

Recorded at Chicago’s Classick Studios, the audio play will be paired with illustrations created by artist Roy Thomas.

How does this show work?

You are emailed a link one hour before showtime with a password. That link will take you to a private Vimeo link where you can listen to the play much like a podcast. To enhance your experience, we encourage you to watch the corresponding video, as each scene (much like a storybook) will contain provocative illustrations by Thomas, the release stated. Closed captioning will be available.

The performance is followed by a moderated, post-show dialogue on Zoom.

Meet the author

Langford's inspiration for "Rastus and Hattie" came from a picture of a human-like robot developed by the Westinghouse electrical company. The robot was designed with brown skin and denim overalls and unveiled at the National Electric and Light Conference in San Francisco in 1930.

Raymond Bobgan is executive artistic director of Cleveland Public Theater, where the play was developed and had its world premiere last fall.

“Lisa Langford takes a disturbing element from our history – a robot designed to look like an African American man – and made it into a bizarre, funny, quirky play where the robot appears today,” Bobgan wrote. “The comedic power of 'Rastus and Hattie' allows Lisa to investigate unconscious biases and insensitivities in a deep, profound, and impactful way.”

The play

The audio play is adapted and directed by Lanise Antoine Shelley. It features Kate Black-Spence, Jasmine Bracey, David Goodloe, Daniel Houle, Colin Jones, Ryan Kitley and Krystel McNeil as Needra.

Collaborators are Olanrewaju Adewole, Nathan Cox-Reed, Mildred Marie Langford, Peter Marston Sullivan and illustrator Roy Thomas.

“In 'Rastus and Hattie,' the robots are history, and David, Marlene, Needra and Malik are ways we deal with history," the playwright stated. "David and Marlene are well-meaning, well-intentioned people who just don’t know about this country’s history because it’s been hidden from them. Needra and Malik know about it but don’t understand and appreciate it. When people watch the play, I hope they laugh and see themselves.”

16th Street Theater

The theater at 1619 Wesley Ave. in Berwyn can be reached at 708-795-6704, ext. 107. To learn more, visit

The 16th Street Theater NFP is grateful for the support of The MacArthur Funds for Arts, Culture and Equity at The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation; Arts Work Fund; The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation; Illinois Arts Council Agency; National New Play Network; Arts Midwest; American Theatre Wing; Lagunitas; and all the individuals and businesses who support its mission, the release stated.

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