Review: Theatre Seven’s “Cooperstown”

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Theatre Seven presents:

Cooperstown

by Brian Golden
directed by Brian Stojak
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Intertwined aspects of race, love and Civil Rights have been examined ad infinitum in many a previous drama. But with Cooperstown, playwright Brian Golden brings an original perspective to such well-trod topics. The times they are a changin’ in this 1962-set drama. Golden frames those remarkable changes within the context of something altogether ordinary, a Cooperstown diner. Here, as employees toil for a minimal $1.40 an hour, a monumental combination of baseball, racism, social unrest and the arrival of Jackie Robinson collide during one flashpoint weekend.

Cooperstown-9 It’s the basis for a wonderful story and as directed with understated nuance by Brian Stojak, it’s told well on the whole. There’s a refreshing lack of anguished over-emoting by the able cast, even when (especially when) events take on painful, life-changing significance. That’s the upside. The downside goes to the nitty-gritty of Golden’s script. The overall story has terrific potential. Its particulars are pocked with nagging holes and improbabilities that erode its basis in truth.

The first of these is snags apparent almost immediately, as Junior (Cecil Burroughs), the diner’s black supervisor, labors over a notebook. This “report,” Junior insists, is the key to a better life, as it is certain to get him a promotion from white diner owner Jimmy Fletcher. Never mind that Fletcher hasn’t set foot in the restaurant in years – Junior speaks of the notebook as if it possessed magic. It will, he asserts, secure him the title of manager, a pay raise and better working conditions all around. Burroughs plays Junior as a man of intelligence and depth; it simply doesn’t ring true that this character would so naively believe his situation would instantly improve simply by presenting a worn ledger full of hand-written notes to a boss he hasn’t even seen in years. The more Junior talks about how his battered notebook is going to change everything, the more artificial Cooperstown sounds.

There’s a parallel contrivance and lack of specificity with several other plot elements. A photo-op with Jackie Robinson in the diner is somehow directly connected to Governor Rockefeller’s patronage plans. A black protest group defined by the letter “S” (underscored and never explained) decides that “taking down” the diner will achieve…well precisely what it will achieve is as muddled as the link between Robinson’s meal there and the Governor’s job appointments. Finally, there’s a scene late in the story that requires immediate action (to say more would reveal spoilers) by Junior and the staff. But instead of tending to the crisis at hand, all and sundry stand around talking for a prolonged period. Emotional exposition trumps situational veracity.

A different but equally vexing problem is apparent in the all-important, star-crossed love story between Junior and Fletcher’s wife, Grace (Emjoy Gavino.) Despite otherwise fine performances by Burroughs and Gavino, they have no chemistry between them.

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Far believable is the sweet romance between waitress and baseball stat savant Dylan (Tracey Kaplan, sometimes truly difficult to understand thanks to her machine-gun speed speech) and Huck (Chance Bone), a plain-spoken out-of-towner with a similar passion for America’s Pastime. It’s a lovely subplot, although it wouldn’t hurt to tone down Dylan’s tomboy streak a tad – when she becomes almost physically ill after kissing Huck, she seems more like a prepubescent girl than a young woman.

Golden’s got hold of the core of an engaging, important story. It’s got a fine setting in Michelle N. Warner’s believably lived in, detailed diner. Would that the details were more rooted in probability.

 

Rating: ★★

 

Cooperstown continues through Dec. 20 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, Tickets are $18 general admission, $14 students, seniors and industry. For more information go to www.theatreseven.org or call 773/404-7336.

Review: Creative Arts Foundation’s “Pill Hill”

Testing the Bonds of Brotherhood in Sam Kelley’s  “Pill Hill”

 "Pill Hill", by Sam Kelley, now playing at eta Creative Arts Foundation

The award winning eta Creative Arts Foundation wraps up its 38th season with a sterling production of Sam Kelley’s Pill Hill, a play that explores the journeys of 6 Chicago steel mill workers trying to realize economic and social success. Director Aaron Todd Douglas has honed his actors into a taut and dynamic ensemble. His direction shines at its best when it contrasts the vital camaraderie that unites these African American men with the unspoken truths, rationalizations, and false aspirations that throw each character into isolation.

Pill Hill is the black upper-class neighborhood on Chicago’s south side where these men aspire to live one day as a sign that they have “made it.” As some take their first tentative steps away from the steel mill, others get left behind—Charlie, the senior member of the group, who has worked there since migrating to Chicago from the South and Joe, who cannot bear to turn away from a sure paycheck, even though the mill inexorably grinds him down. Kelley’s play examines the toll that success takes on friendship, while acknowledging that the price of doing nothing is certainly just as high.

There is much to be said about Kelley’s keen eye on friendships between the men of Pill Hill. Most of that dynamic plays out between Joe (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) and Eddie (Anthony Peeples), in the crucible of their desire for a better life. Much as they both share their dreams of getting out of the mill and onto the Hill, more goes unsaid between them about the limits of their friendship when the stagnation of one strains against the overwhelming success of the other.

Indeed, the whole cast, under Douglas’s watchful direction, construct nuanced relationships between their characters, where what is not said matters as much as what is. Therefore, much is made about Joe’s need to move on from mill work, but silence surrounds his encroaching alcoholism; Scott (Cecil Burroughs) gets to revel in his glory days as a prospective football player, but no one confronts him about his descent into drug sales once his potential truly dries up; the guys remark frequently on Tony’s (Corey Spruill) natural abilities as a salesman, but none question his growing lack of a moral center.

Attention, as well as praise, must be paid to the most riveting monologue of the production, delivered by David Adams, as Charlie. It is critical to the play. It grounds it in the recognition that success can never be as simple to African Americans as it is for whites. Success for African Americans bears the awful burden of reflecting full-fledged personhood and first-class citizenship. Tragically, material success may also dangerously expose a black man as being “too uppity.” Charlie relates the time that Southern police officers pulled him over for the crime of driving his new Cadillac around his old hometown. After they have terrorized and humiliated him in front of his family, Charlie drives back to Chicago and puts the Cadillac up on blocks, not to be driven again, until a new sheriff has taken over, years later. Obviously, having more than white bigots think you deserve can get you into as much trouble as having nothing.

While having it all and having nothing contend most dramatically between Joe and Eddie, it’s the internal struggle between the two that wreaks the most havoc with Eddie’s soul. Eddie is the greatest achiever of the group, breaking the glass ceiling as the first black lawyer of a prestigious Chicago law firm. He becomes the group’s living symbol of promise and hope. But one almost wishes Eddie could be a little less successful, but a little more content, as is dear, henpecked Al (Kevin Hope). Peeple’s Eddie is ready to crack under the burden of it all—the success, the compromise that success demands of him, and especially, the childlike adulation of Joe, who is already so broken, no attempt can be made to hide it. Something has got to give. The showdown between Joe and Eddie is searing and unforgettable.

It is my hope that theatergoers who are familiar with the north side will head south to see this magnificent production. Douglas and cast strike the right balance between playfulness and tension, humor and anger, yearning, helplessness, and hope. While some dialogue may be stilted, Sam Kelley’s work truly ranks with other dramas that critique the American Dream, like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Whatever its limits, this play examines something that the previous two works do not. It explores the modern day tests that are put to an African American brotherhood that is, all at once, flawed, endangered, compassionate, and powerful.

Rating:  ««««

Pill Hill runs through August 9th, at the eta Creative Arts Foundation, located at 7558 S Chicago Avenue.  For more info and tickets, call (773) 752-3955.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 P.M.
Sunday at 3:00 P.M. & 7:00 P.M.

 

For more info regarding eta Creative Arts, click on “Read more”

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"Hizzoner" announces Spring 2009 schedule

The hugely popular (and critically-acclaimed) “Hizzoner: Daley The First”, which ran for over 300-performances, will be seen again on Chicago stages this coming spring.  The producers, Gipeti Entertainment, have announced the 2009 performance schedule, including a month-long stay at the Skokie Theatre, 7924 N. Lincoln Ave., Skokie (Feb. 6 – 22, 2009) and a return to the Chicago stage at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. (April 2 – May 17, 2009). Tickets for 2009 dates are available at each box office or at hizzonertheplay.com, Skokie Theatre dates are currently on sale and Theatre Building dates go on sale Friday, Dec. 5.

This upcoming production will include many of the original performers: Neil Giuntoli, Don Schroeder, William Bullion, Nick Leininger, Diane Honeyman, Gordon Gillespie; and some new additions; Chas Vrba, Cecil Burroughs, Chuck Jacobson, Mike O’Brien.

Read our glowing review here.