Review: The Gospel According to James (Victory Gardens)

  
  

History is anything but black and white in “Gospel”

  
  

André De Shields as James in Victory Garden's "The Gospel According To James" by Charles Smith (photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
  
The Gospel According to James
   
Written by Charles Smith
Directed by Chuck Smith
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 12  | 
tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

On Aug. 7, 1930, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in the town of Marion, Indiana. The two African-American men allegedly murdered a white local factory worker and raped his white girlfriend. Instead of allowing the justice system to weigh whether the men were truly guilty, the townspeople took the law into their own hands and tore down the jailhouse doors. Beaten and bloody, the bodies of both men were strung up on an tree. Studio photographer Lawrence Beitler managed to immortalize the horrific event, snapping a picture of the bodies swinging from the tree as a crowd of joyful onlookers stand below. Today, that picture serves as a powerful and grizzly reminder of the consequences of racial intolerance.

Kelsey Brennan as Mary and Tyler Jacob Rollinson as Abe Smith in Charles Smith’s "The Gospel According to James. (photo: Liz Lauren)No one knows precisely what events transpired that led to the charges against Thomas and Abram. James Cameron, a third black man initially identified as an accomplice to the crime, was spared from death at the hands of the mob. He would later state in interviews that he fled the seen before the murder took place. Marie Ball, the woman who was allegedly raped, would later testify that she was, in fact, never raped.

This ambiguity makes the case of Thomas and Abram ripe for speculation. And so playwright Charles Smith has embarked on crafting a script that dramatizes what may have transpired throughout those days leading up to the lynching. What results is an intriguing work of historical fiction that wisely steers away from tired cliché and instead focuses on the inherent flaws of memory.

The play is about an imagined meeting between James Cameron (portrayed by André De Shields and Anthony Peeples) and Marie Ball (portrayed by Linda Kimbrough and Kelsey Brennan). Fate has brought them back to Marion. In the passing years, Cameron has taken it upon himself to be the vocal historian of that tragic night. His account parallels that of the real-life history of the event: Abram (Tyler Jacob Rollinson) and Thomas (Wardell Julius Clark) held up former foundry worker Claude (Zach Kenney), and before the murder occurred, Cameron fled the scene.

But Marie does not remember it this way. She resents Cameron for spreading lies and threatens to reveal her version of the truth to the public. As Marie recounts her recollection of the events that led to that ugly night, we see her memories take dramatic form. According to her, Claude was hardly an innocent victim. James was more involved than he claims to be. And she and Thomas were much more than mere acquaintances. But despite her compelling account, Marie’s cognizance is called into question, and we are forced to wonder whose story, if anyone’s, is the real deal.

The cast is captivating. Shields is energetic and expressive as the aged James, while Kimbrough serves as an effective forlorn foil. Meanwhile, the scenes between Marie’s parents (portrayed by Diane Kondrat and Christopher Jon Martin) are powerful, while Kenney is a believable slime ball. There is real chemistry between Rollinson and Brennan, which makes Abram’s lynching that much more heartbreaking. Peeples is the only odd man out here. His portrayal of the youthful version of James is cartoonishly juvenile. He speaks in a childlike tone and talks like an imbecile. This is a complete disconnect from the adult James, who is well spoken and refined.

Smith is a smart playwright. He could have used the Marion lynching as a platform to soapbox about the ills of racism, a trite topic that always falls on agreeable ears. Instead, he focuses on memory and the subjectiveness of history. This is a much more interesting subject to parse, and he does a good job of portraying it dramatically. However, there are a few bumps in the script, particularly when the dialogue veers too far into poetry, creating a sense of melodrama.

Victory Gardens’ production of The Gospel According to James is an engaging fictional account of a historical event. Despite its minor flaws, the solid acting and a strong script prevail, making it a thoroughly entertaining watch.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Anthony Peeples as Apples, Kelsey Brennan as Mary and Wardell Julius Clark as Tommy Shipp in Charles Smith’s "The Gospel According To James" at Victory Gardens Theatre (photo: Liz Lauren)

Ticket Prices: $35-$50, Students with I.D.- $20, and can be purchased by phone 773.871.3000 or via e-mail (tickets@victorygardens.org).   Performance Times: Tues-Saturday: 7:30pm, Saturday Matinee: 4pm, Sunday Matinee: 3pm, Wednesday Matinee: 2pm.   Recommended Age: 16 & up

  
  

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REVIEW: The Good Negro (Goodman Theatre)

Bringing humanity to an inconceivable time in history

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Goodman Theatre presents
 
The Good Negro
 
Written by Tracey Scott Wilson
Directed by
Chuck Smith
at
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through June 6th  tickets: $22-$71  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A despicable act by the police impassions a spontaneous response by the community. It’s really not that black and white. The Goodman Theatre presents The Good Negro, a play about the back story on the movement to end segregation. Three black leaders are looking for a publicity moment to instigate a non-violent protest against discrimination. A four year old girl and her mother are arrested for using the good-negro11 restroom for whites. Because the mother is ‘a good Negro,’ attractive and well-spoken, the incident is prime to rally the troops. This illustration of history would have been poignant enough. A Good Negro adds in other complexities like wire-tapping, marital infidelity, and the KKK – becoming a multi-dimensional story of the internal and external strife of the civil rights movement. Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson tells the powerful untold story of the politics… government, hierarchical, sexual… that interfered in the quest for racial equality in the 1960’s.

Under the direction of Chuck Smith, the cast makes an unimaginable time in history relatable. Nambi E. Kelley’s portrayal of a mother (Claudette Sullivan) in anguish is heart-breaking. Billy Eugene Jones appeals as the flawed charismatic leader James Lawrence. Struggling with his own identity issues, Teagle F. Bougere (Minister Henry Evans) effectively engages the audience with his motivational sermons. In minister mode, Bougere adds a little comedy relief as he tells a late intermission returner to ‘sit down.’ Although it’s unclear whether his character is ‘a good Negro’ or not until Act II, Demetrois Troy is perfect as the socially awkward, behind the scenes guy Bill Rutherford. Tory O. Davis (Pelzie Sullivan) portrays the simplicity of his character with surprising depth. Karen Aldridge (Corinne Lawrence) elicits applause in a pivotal scene of strength. Dan Waller (Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr.) exploits the lunacy in a KKK recruitment speech based on scientific facts that ‘colored people’s blood can kill.’ The spooks are stereotypical ‘by the book’ nonsense with Mick Weber playing straight-laced and John Hoogenakker as the wise cracking sidekick.

 

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Set designer Riccardo Hernandez has gone floor to wall churchy with wooden planks covering every stage space. It effectively places the audience in a pew to watch the drama. Embedded along the back wall are strips of lighting – Robert Christen’s haunting lighting design illuminates a cross shape during congregation scenes to build the religious ambiance. Throughout the show, projected fortune cookie-like slogans prophesize a scene with ‘This is the something’ and ‘Do what you have to do.’ Mike Tutaj (projections designer) uses a biblical font to reinforce the secular foundation of the movement. Tutaj also flashes iconic imagery of photojournalist Charles Moore to set the time period. Powerful!

Realizing that, less than fifty years ago, discrimination led to unbelievable acts of cruelty to the black community – makes The Good Negro an important show to see. We can’t forget the sacrifices civil rights leaders made to forge the evolution of thought on equality. The Good Negro is an important illustration of an inconceivable time in American history.

  
 
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a ten minute intermission

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Goodman Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

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It’s "The Best of All Possible"! Artistic Director Robert Falls announces Goodman Theatre’s initial five-play line-up, including two reimagined classics and three world-premiere productions (two of which are Goodman commissions) that define the theater’s new 2010/2011 season; three plays are still to be announced. The new season marks the Goodman’s 10th in its home at 170 N. Dearborn and anchor of Chicago’s revitalized North Loop Theatre District—and its 85th year as the city’s largest not-for-profit producing theater.

Highlights:

  • Mary Zimmerman reimagines Bernstein’s Candide in a major fall musical event
  • Robert Falls re-exmines Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull
  • New works by Sarah Ruhl 
  • Major new revival of the musical masterpiece Candide by Leonard Bernstein and Hugh Wheeler

Says Artistic Director Robert Falls:

"Our 2010/2011 season showcases the artistic breadth and variety for which the Goodman is noted, and the quality and diversity that our state-of-the-art facility has helped us achieve over the past ten years in this incredible new home. I am particularly pleased to welcome back three of my favorite collaborators—Manilow Resident Director Mary Zimmerman, Artistic Associate Regina Taylor, and playwright Sarah Ruhl—and excited to welcome Thomas Bradshaw to the Goodman for the first time."

 

The 2010-2011 Goodman Theatre Season

  Candide
  September and October, 2010 (Albert Theatre)
  Directed and adapted by Mary Zimmerman
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Hugh Wheeler
New adaptation by Mary Zimmerman
  Tony Award and MacArthur "Genius" Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s breathtaking new production of Candide is the theatrical event of the season. In addition to the music of Leonard Bernstein, Candide features contributions from the greatest lyricists of the 20th century, from Richard Wilbur to Stephen Sondheim. In this racy musical satire, naive Candide is banished for romancing the Baron’s daughter, only to be plagued by a series of absurd hardships that challenge his optimistic outlook of life and love.
   
  The Seagull
  October and November, 2010 (Owen Theatre)
  by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Robert Falls
  Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls directs an intimate new production of Chekhov’s masterwork The Seagull, whose unforgettable characters reveal the passion and pathos of everyday life. When famed actress Irina visits her family with her young lover Trigorin in tow, they become ensnared in a tragicomic tangle of romance, intrigue and unrequited love. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to experience a 20th century masterpiece, interpreted by one of America’s outstanding directors—in the Owen Theatre.

   
  Rain
  January and February, 2011 (Albert Theatre)
  by Regina Taylor
A World Premier
  Rain is Regina Taylor‘s most personal and intimate work to date. Fiercely independent Iris has made a successful life for herself as a journalist in New York City, but when her marriage fails, she begins to unravel. In search of solace, Iris returns to her mother’s house in Texas, but her homecoming proves more confounding than consoling when her mother makes a shocking announcement. As long-buried family secrets come to light, Iris must face her past and make some difficult decisions about the future.
   
  Mary
  February and March, 2011 (Owen Theatre)
  by Thomas Bradshaw 
Directed by May Adrales
A World Premiere
  Outrageous. Ruthless. Explosive. Named "Best Provocative Playwright" by The Village Voice, Thomas Bradshaw pulls no punches in his comic absurdist drama Mary. At the height of what Time magazine dubbed "AIDS hysteria" in 1983, college student David invites his boyfriend home to his parents’ house in Virginia where nothing has changed since the 1800s—including the slave quarters. Confronting hypocrisy and oppression with exhilarating wit, Bradshaw’s incendiary work is "likely to leave you speechless!" (The New York Times).
   
  Stage Kiss
  March and April, 2011 (Albert Theatre)
  by Sarah Ruhl 
A World Premiere Goodman Theatre commission
  In this quirky new comedy by MacArthur "Genius" Award-winner Sarah Ruhl, art imitates life—or is it the other way around? When ex-lovers HE and SHE are thrown together as romantic leads in an outrageously dreadful melodrama, they quickly lose touch with reality as the story onstage begins to follow them offstage. Stage Kiss is a hilarious, off-beat fairy-tale about what happens when lovers share a stage kiss-or when actors share a real one.

An Opening Benefit launches the milestone season on Monday, September 27 at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing—the location of the theater’s former home of 75 years. Honored will be those who paved the way for the new Goodman and made possible its myriad artistic, economic and community engagement achievements over the past decade. The evening will culminate with a performance of Candide. For tickets and more information about the Season Opening Benefit, call 312.443.5564. This will be the first in a season-long series of commemorative happenings.

Upcoming productions in the 2009/2010 Season include:  the world premiere of the Goodman commissioned A True History of the Johnstown Flood by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Robert Falls (March 13 – April 18, 2010 in the Albert); The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson, directed by Chuck Smith (May 1 – June 6, 2010 in the Albert); and The Sins of Sor Juana by Karen Zacarías, directed by Henry Godinez (June 19 – July 25, 2010 in the Albert) which launches the Goodman’s 5th Latino Theater Festival.

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REVIEW: First Words (MPAACT Theatre)

Illuminating "First Words"

 

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MPAACT  presents:

First Words

 

by Aaron Carter
directed by Chuck Smith
through February 28th (more info)

Review by K.D. Hopkins

It may be incomprehensible for some to understand a parent’s pain and terror upon learning that something is not quite right with their child. It has been my experience in the African American community that disabilities were an insular subject. It was dealt with within the family and with the support of a tight knit neighborhood. There were no special schools or classes. It was often considered up to ‘the Lord’s will’ how someone with a disability coped in the world. MPAACT productions First Words is a lovingly crafted and honest look at autism and how a family dissolves under the pressures of reality and self-delusion.

Family Paul and Barbara are played as a normal and loving couple that has managed to coexist with their differences and the challenge of their autistic son Aiden. Paul carries religious wounds from a strict father and lives in fear of blasphemy lest he be punished. Andre Teamer plays the character of Paul. He projects a beautiful tension and frailty in his role as the father. Tina Marie Wright is a wonderful counterpoint as Barbara who is breaking under the strain of Aiden’s increasingly violent outbursts and no seeming way to get through to her son. Her performance is finely nuanced and subtle. Scott Baity Jr. plays the troubled and sometimes menacing Aiden with a coiled ferocity that was shocking and projected the helplessness of the autistic world.

The role of Diane, the facilitated communications expert, is played by Lauren Malara. Barbara’s character expects her to be an Ivy League White girl and is surprised when it is an Ivy League Black girl who walks in the door. Ms. Malara projects the epitome of fresh-faced enthusiasm. The character of Diane is an advocate of research and empirical evidence  – until she sees the flaws in her methods.

Chuck Smith, whose rendition of James Baldwin’s “Amen Corner” at the Goodman was brilliant, directs this play. It is everyday life in the African American community that has been for the most part remanded to literary interpretation. These are people that I have known and not a glossy film retelling for palatability’s sake. The direction is flowing and I loved the added dimension of the characters projected behind them as they spoke. It underscored what seems to be in an autistic person’s mind: so much stimuli and in so many forms that it cannot be sorted out to the point where a touch can be the breaking point.

The set dressing seems to have been taken from a home in Morgan or Maple Park on the south side of Chicago. The family pictures in color and sepia tone were a wonderful touch as was the glowing white Bible on its own shelf. Mr. Teamer is the props master for this production and I presume that his character of Paul fed into the prop selection.

Adian w light writer cropped Aaron Carter, the playwright for First Words, has an interesting lineage of Baptist preacher and Vaudeville according to his biography notes. He has taken the best of both and crafted a fine play. There is the high dudgeon of fiery Baptist preaching and the slight of hand in Vaudeville without falling into the grotesque. The most compelling scenes are between Ms. Wright and Mr. Baity. Barbara is driven to break the silence and she has nightmares in which Aiden speaks. It becomes the adage of be careful of what you ask for-surely you will get it.

There are no easy answers or resolution to the controversy of facilitated communication for autistic persons in First Words. It is a searing presentation of what happens to a family when faith is divided and trust is broken in pursuit of answers. It is about the perception of what the parental bond means to a God-fearing father and a self-professed heathen mother. The answers are locked inside Aiden’s head as well as his parent’s dreams. The final moment of the play drives the ‘not knowing’ home with one subtle gesture. This production is highly recommended

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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First Words” runs Thursdays through Sundays January 28th through February 28th at The Greenhouse Theatre Center. 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. The Box Office number is 773-404-7336. Parents take note: this play contains adult language and scenes of violence.

Goodman Theatre’s 6th Annual New Stages Series

Via Kenneth Jones at Playbill Online

Goodman’s New Stages Series – September 12th to 21st

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The free series of script-in-hand staged readings of six emerging American playwrights takes place in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, and is open to the public. Tickets are free, but reservations are required at (312) 443-3800.

Now in its sixth year, the Goodman’s New Stages Series has provided the first look at nearly 30 new plays, many of which have gone on to receive world-premiere productions at the Goodman.

 

 

2008 New Stages Series

Pa’s Hat: A Liberian Legacy by Cori Thomas, directed by Chuck Smith, Sept. 12 at 7 PM “Civil unrest, national heritage and family responsibility converge in this one-act drama that follows an elderly former ambassador and his daughter as they are abducted by a child soldier in war-torn Liberia.”

Safe House by Keith Josef Adkins, directed by Hallie Gordon, Sept. 13 at 7 PM. “A family of color, free since their great-grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War, cannot resist the temptation to help a young woman escape from slavery along the Underground Railroad. In the great American tradition of historical romance, two brothers compete for their birthright of freedom.”

Household Spirits by Mia McCullough, directed by Meghan Beals McCarthy, Sept. 14 at 7 PM. “It’s Christmas Eve in Westchester County and Philip, an entertainment lawyer, and Evelyn, his new wife and agent to the stars, are preparing for a party. Unfortunately, Philip has recently revealed that he’s an alcoholic, and the couple’s teenage children are conspiring to complicate Evelyn’s perfect soirée. In this bitingly funny and unexpectedly thoughtful new play, Chicago playwright Mia McCullough grapples with the complicated nature of family and inheritance.”

Without by Sean Graney, Sept. 19 at 7 PM. “In the back room of a space-themed bar, Rocketman and White White meet for the first time in 15 years. White White has something she needs Rocketman to do – but does he have what it takes to do it? Chicago writer/director Sean Graney (The Hypocrites) pens a devastating look at responsibility and regret.”

Marie Antoinette by David Adjmi, directed by Jackson Gay, Sept. 20 at 7 PM. “How’s a queen to keep her head in the middle of a revolution? A satirical, irreverent portrait of the famous queen and her downfall, this vividly rendered study of celebrity, power and privilege is painted in sad, funny and surrealistic strokes.”

The Long Red Road by Brett C. Leonard, Sept. 21 at 7 PM.

“A devastating new play about the impact of addiction, The Long Red Road introduces Sammy, who has fled his past and landed in South Dakota where he is slowly drinking himself to death. When his young daughter arrives desperate to reunite with her father, Sammy must decide between the self-hatred that consumes him and the responsibilities he has tried to leave behind.”

The free series of script-in-hand staged readings takes place in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre and is open to the public. Tickets are free, but reservations are required at (312) 443-3800. For more information visit the Goodman Theatre website.  

For the entire article, visit (and subscribe to) Playbill Online, at www.playbill.com

Goodman announces cast for “Ain’t Misbehavin”

Chicago's Goodman Theatre presents 'Ain't Misbehavin' in their main theatre during the month of July 2008.The Goodman Theatre has just announced the casting for there summer production of Ain’s Misbehavin’, directed by Chuck Smith. The cast will include five of Chicago’s foremost musical theatre names – E. Faye Butler (Purlie), John Steven Crowley (Crowns), Alexis Rogers (Black Nativity), Parrish Collier and Lina Kernan.  Additionally, Linda Buchanan has been hired as set designer, who reportedly will transform the 856-seat Albert Ivar Goodman Theatre into a grandiose period concert hall, featuring an eight-piece band led by music director Malcolm Ruhl. 

The band will include Peter Benson (piano), Larry Bowen (trumpet), Y.L. Douglas (drums) Anderson Edwards (bass), T.S. Galoway (trombone), Jarrard Harris (tenor sax/clarinet), Stephen Leinheiser (alto sax/clarinet) and Malcolm Ruhl (guitar and conductor).

The design team and additional artists for Ain’t Misbehavin’ include Birgit Rattenborg Wise (costumes), Robert Christen (lighting), Josh Horvath and Ray Nardelli (sound) and Lisa Willingham-Johnson (choreographer). 

Ain’t Misbehavin’ opened first as a cabaret act, quickly followed by a Broadway run of over 1,600 performances and numerous awards, including the Tony Award for Best Musical. 

From the Goodman Theatre:

“Born in Harlem in 1904, Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller remains one of the most influential stride piano players, having written more than 450 songs and recorded over 500 sides during his career. He wrote his first composition at age 14, and became a professional pianist the very next year – playing with legendary artists such as Fletcher Henderson and Jack Teagarden, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith. He became famous performing a combination of his own music and music written by others. After Waller’s death in 1943, his influence waned and his legacy faded into the historical background for over three decades. In 1978, theatre artists Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., generated renewed attention and interest in Waller with their creation Ain’t Misbehavin’, through which they paid tribute to Waller’s contributions to American music and highlighted the best aspects of the Harlem nightclub revues of the 1920s and ’30s.”

Ain’s Misbehavin’ will run this summer at Goodman’s Albert Ivar Theatre from June 21st through July 27th.   For more information, go to Goodman’s website.

(Hat tip to Playbill.com)