It was eight years ago that Ben Asaykwee first learned of the horror of H.H. Holmes — America's first serial killer.
While living in Chicago (and after reading Devil in the White City) Asaykwee discovered the connection between the the Columbian Exposition of 1893, otherwise known as the Chicago World's Fair, and one of the most famous murderers to walk this continent. That connection (and the estimated 200 lives taken) is leading to one of the most innovative Q Artistry productions to date — White City Murder.
The two-person musical written by Asaykwee, one of the founders of Q, allows himself and Claire Wilcher to show Holmes through the eyes of the World's Fair.
"It's the fair looking at Holmes' life as a source of entertainment — which is what the fair was," says Asaykwee. He explained that the narrative is woven by the "barkers," — the "step right up!" people at a fair or carnival.
"They are selling the audience on the fact that this was the ultimate show of its time," says Asaykwee.
The World's Fair — one of the most grand spectacles of architecture, design, science, and sheer extravagance for its time — was literally in Holmes' backyard. Holmes ran a hotel near the fair where he would often lure his victims, usually young women, to their death. Holmes was known for dismembering his victims and burning the bodies, and using their names to commit insurance fraud. While it is only known (factually) that Holmes killed nine, it is estimated that his actual death card was upwards of 200. A few conspiracy theories even place him as Jack the Ripper.
Asaykwee and Wilcher play over 30 characters throughout the show, including a male and female both cast as Holmes.
"In the end it was a backward symbolization that in Homes' life he had to play so many roles and was fraudulent in so many different ways," says Asaykwee. "That is how these barkers are telling the story, by not only stepping into all the roles, but creating it all from scratch."
The two are going to be creating a show nearly from scratch every night. While the play and score took Asaykwee roughly a month and a half to compose, It was just a few months ago that he decided to incorporate loop machines, where the two would record piano and their voices and loop them into a complete musical track for each song.
"That became the underlying theme in the show, that not only Claire and I would play all of the characters — from both of us playing Holmes to all of his victims and other people in his life — we would play all of the instrumentalists in the show and we would lay down loops and create our own music as we went," says Asaykwee.
"There are more songs, technically, in this show than I have ever written in a show," says Asaykwee.
Musical composition like this has never been done before by Q in any of its 30 original plays (by 17 different local playwrights since 2010). This show will be the final bow at the Historic Irvington Lodge for Q actors before they move into a stronger partnership with Theatre on the Square for the summer.
While the musical arrangement is impressive in itself, it's the psychological wrestling in the show that make the production noteworthy.
"I think the piece ends up asking the question, how do we make a serial killer?" says Asaykwee. "As someone who doesn't understand how others can be tortured — even the worst people in the world, I can't imagine going there."
He hopes to ask questions like: what exactly could be wrong with someone that would cause them to plummet to that level of the human psyche?
Asaykwee's background in psychology had him wrestling with the notion further.
"Just because you are sociopath doesn't mean that you would then choose to do this," says Asaykwee. "You have to have a reason why you want to do this."
He recalled writing the song "Showman," a piece about serial killers.
"The research I had to do for that song was interesting and fascinating, but I had to take breaks because it was so dark," says Asaykwee.
Part of that research was reading the first person accounts from Holmes, where his tone was sarcastic, triumphant, and intoxicated with fame.
"How on earth could this happen to this person that they are so raw? How can we share the same DNA as a species, that they are able to inflict this kind of pain on others?" questions Asaykwee. He paused on the phone, recalling how his understanding of Holmes broadened during the writing.
"I couldn't help but have sympathy for who he was as a child, says Asaykwee.
"Maybe that's part of our morbid fascination of these people — we don't understand them. We never know why they choose to do these things. It's fascinating."