Review: Jackie and Me (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

     
     

Jackie Robinson honored with fun and dynamic storytelling

 

  
     

Pictured (far left) Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson, (seated, with baby) Tracey Bonner as Rachel Robinson, and (far right) Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilow

  
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
  
Jackie and Me
      
Written by Steven Dietz
Based on book by Dan Gutman
Directed by Derrick Sanders
at  Ruth Page Center for the Arts
1016 N. Dearborn Avenue (map)
through March 27  | 
tickets: $25-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Chicago Children’s Theatre has a triumph on their hands. Their world premiere production of Jackie and Me has nothing less than heart—miles and miles of heart. Based on the children’s book by Dan Gutman, frankness and joyful simplicity dominate Steven Dietz’s script. Derrick Sanders’ fresh and focused direction energizes the story of Jackie Robinson, the black athlete who broke the color barrier in baseball. Jackie and Me doesn’t just relate Robinson’s story accessibly to young Pictured, from left:  Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilowaudiences, but also makes it lively, passionate and dynamic. The play teaches young people the degrading and often dangerous racism Robinson had to overcome just to play in the white major leagues. But equally threaded throughout the story is an unquenchable enthusiasm for baseball, its history and power to connect generations.

Young Joey Stoshack (Tyler Ross) has an undying love for baseball. Joey also has a peculiar gift—by simply holding an old baseball card in his hand he can travel back in time to meet the baseball player pictured on the card. When his teacher gives his class the assignment of writing biographical reports of great African Americans, Joey is relieved to learn that Jackie Robinson is on the list. An old friend Flip (Sean Cooper) lends him a Bond Bread card with Jackie Robinson’s picture on it and he travels back to learn history as it happened.

The characters of Jackie and Me are drawn bold and big—and they don’t get much bigger or bolder than Branch Rickey (Charles Stransky) signing Jackie Robinson (Kamal Angelo Bolden) to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Sanders’ direction allows his cast to project their characters with directness and clarity while exuberantly moving the story forward–and the production goes beyond idealizing the larger-than-life characters of Rickey and Robinson, simply and potently enshrined by Stransky and Bolden. Just when one thinks the time travel bit won’t convince, it convinces. Just when one thinks the story’s unabashed optimism might come off too hokey or old-fashioned, it convinces. Sanders and his excellent cast bring across the nobility and hopefulness of Robinson’s achievement with masterful assurance.

     
Pictured (from left)  Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson, Sean Cooper as Jackie’s Dodger teammate Pee Wee Rees, and Patrick De Nicola as Phildelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilow Pictured, from left:  Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, Charles Stransky as Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers,  who signed the first African-American to play major league baseball, Jackie Robinson, played by Kamal Angelo Bolden. Photo credit:  Michael Brosilow

Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun. Ross’s open and straightforward emotion allows audiences, both young and old, to connect with Joey’s journey. Patrick de Nicola provides infinite comic relief in a number of other roles in which he plays Joey’s rival. As Joey’s Mom and Dad, Vanessa Greenway and Ron Rains make warm, human and realistic parents. Chicago Children’s Theatre goes to the very heart of storytelling and reveals the diamonds that are there. Jackie and Me has the stuff to uplift and rejuvenate audiences of all ages and remind them of the glory of baseball at the center of the American Dream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
      
  

Performances of Jackie and Me continue through March 27, 2011 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets are $25 for children (ages 17 and under) and $35 for adults, available through CCT’s website, chicagochildrenstheatre.org, or the ticket hotline, (866) 811-4111.

Jackie and Me is recommended for children ages 8 and older as it deals with historical racism in an honest manner.

(from left) Sean Cooper as Flip, owner of the baseball card shop frequented by time traveler Joey Shostack, played by Tyler Ross. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Pictured, from left:  Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson Jackie Robinson - Jackie and Me - Chicago Children's Theatre

Photos by Michael Brosilow 

Artists

Cast: Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson, Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, with Tracey N. Bonner (Rachel), Patrick De Nicola (Ant), Ron Rains (Dad), Vanessa Greenway (Mom), Sean Cooper (Flip) and Charles Stransky (Branch Rickey).

Production: Steven Dietz (playwright), Derrick Sanders (director), Ian Zywica (set), Seth Reinick (lights), Christine Pascual (costumes), Michael Griggs (sound) and Kimberly Morris (props), Michael Brosilow (photography).

     
     

Review: Home (Court Theatre)

       
    

Resonant and timely, yet still flawed

     
     

Kamal Angelo Bolden, Ashley Honore, and Tracey N Bonner in Home at Court Theatre

   
Court Theatre presents
   
Home
   
Written by Samm-Art Williams
Directed by
Ron OJ Parson
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through Dec 12  | 
tickets: $30-$60  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

Three decades pass within the trajectory of Home, Samm-Art Williams three-character saga of a swath of American history viewed through the lens of an African-American man. The odyssey of Cephus Miles, from naïve, idealistic farm boy to destitute, drugged-out urbanite to prodigal son returned to the land is both uniquely specific and undeniably universal. It doesn’t matter what your race is: The struggle to put down roots can lead to the hellish instability of rocky soil long before a redemptive, fertile ground is found.

Final scene from HOME - Court Theatre - Kamal Angelo Bolden and Ashley HonoreThe piece is flawed, to be sure. Cephus (Kamal Angelo Bolden) seems to be no deeper than his outward actions – a character comprised of action but with little internal nuance. And by playing multiple roles as Cephus’ Job-like travels unfurl, Woman I (Ashley Honore) and Woman 2 (Tracey N. Bonner) provide character sketches that are more amusing than deep. Finally, the happily-ever-after ending that ensues after Cephus’ woeful odyssey of heartbreak, prison, and homelessness seems a bit pat. Williams dispenses with a wealth of endlessly complex societal woes – poverty, racism, and drug addiction among them – with a few deft swipes of the pen.

Wiliams’ text is musical, a rhythmic, lyrical pastiche of scenes that play like movements in a verbal sonata with words that literally sing at times. Hymns, spirituals, chants to make the toil of laboring in the tobacco fields endurable are interspersed through more traditional scenes of storytelling.

The yarns Cephus’ spins recalling his boyhood in Crossroads, North Carolina, are among the plays highlights: Working for the local moonshiner in a backwoods still where the occasional possum fell into the vat and made the brew all the more pungent; ditching church to play craps on Sunday out in the graveyard, escapades with colorful local characters – in the telling of these memories, Home shines brightest.

Cephus’ true love Patti May (Ashley Honore) figures predominantly in the story, with requisite rolls in the hayloft and vivid depictions of the explosive, pent-up sexuality of adolescence. But while there’s no questioning the sweet eroticism that exists between the couple, Patti May herself is all pleasant superficiality rather than uniquely layered character. She’s pretty, but that’s about it – Williams’ text provides little depth to the woman. When she makes a rather predictable final-act re-entry into Cephus’ life, her motivations for doing so seem more like a dramatic convenience (it wouldn’t do to leave poor Cephus stuck in a miserable, unhappy ending) than a genuine turn of events.

Ashley Honore and Kamal Angelo Bolden - Court Theatre Ashley Honore, Kamal Angelo Bolden, and Tracey N. Bonner - Home - Court Theatre
Ashley Honore, Kamal Angelo Bolden, and Tracey N. Bonner at Court Theatre - Home Kamal Angelo Bolden in winter scene in Samm-Art Williams Home - Court Theatre

Tracey N. Bonner has better luck playing multiple characters of marvelously funny and idiosyncratic quirks. As a coke-sniffing, loose-living big-city harlot, she’s a hoot, swanning about in a Scarlett-woman red feather boa like some kind of post-modern Jezebel. She’s equally memorable playing a snootily righteous welfare office caseworker who denigrates a homeless Cephus for being an embarrassment to his race.

This production is Ron OJ Parson’s third time at the helm of Home, having directed the piece for the Madison Repertory Company and New York’s Signature Theatre. He keeps the pace brisk, shaping scenes that are sometimes almost like small choreopoems. The opening scene is particularly effective as the two women hoe under a blazing sun, giving a harsh cadence to words so descriptively you can all but feel the sweat from relentless heat and ache from the back-breaking labor.
But while many of the individual scenes in Home resonate with powerful immediacy, the story as a whole just isn’t as effective – primarily because of that fairy tale, happily-ever-after ending. Williams brings plenty of relevancy to the stage: Cephus’ imprisonment after refusing to fight in Viet Nam is an issue that rings loud and clear as the war in Iraq plods bloodily on. His battles with heroin, homelessness and lost love are also vividly immediate. Unfortunately, his rapid redemption – financially, emotionally and geographically – are not. And his constant refrain throughout – that God is “on vacation in Miami” adds a jarring note to otherwise melodious dialogue.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

     
     

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REVIEW: The Island (Remy Bumppo)

Friendship comes first in revival of Fugard prison drama

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Remy Bumppo presents:

The Island

by Athol Fugard
directed by James Bohnen
through March 7th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Athol Fugard’s The Island begins with prisoners Winston (Kamal Angelo Bolden) and John (La Shawn Banks) shoveling sand into wheelbarrows on opposite sides of the stage. When each prisoner’s wheelbarrow is full, he empties it into the other man’s freshly dug pit, returns to his original position, and then repeats the entire process. their only redemption the foreman’s whistle. This opening sequence is monotonous and continues for nearly ten minues, but is extremely effective in showing how South Africa’s Robben Island prison exhausted its population into complacency. When not being mentally and physically tortured, the two cell mates rehearse a stripped-down Antigone for the prison’s talent show, with Winston as Antigone, much to his disdain, and John as her dominating uncle Creon.

The relationship between these two men is the anchor of the production, directed by James Bohnen, and Banks brings a mature, caring energy to the stage that nurtures Bolden’s more brutish Winston. What this season’s FugardChicago mini-festival – which includes Timeline Theatre‘s Master Harold…and the Boys  (currently playing) and Court Theatre‘s Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (this past May) – has shown thus far is the playwright’s ability to develop beautiful friendships from the dreary circumstances of apartheid South Africa, and the two actors of The Island capture the complicated dynamics of their characters’ friendship.

The Island, like most of Fugard’s work, is heavy on political commentary, and while the writing is intelligent and thought-provoking, the language often becomes very formal, too much like a reading of an essay rather than real human dialogue. During the performance of Antigone this feels appropriate, but feels out of place when it appears in the scenes of the two men speaking casually, and Fugard’s intellectual perception of prison ends up sacrificing much of the visceral pain seen in the opening in favor of bookish monologues that veer into heady territory.

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Athol Fugard is able to probe into the emotional damage inflicted by the prison system when John learns that his sentence has been reduced, joyous news that means an end to the bond that Winston and he have formed over the past two years. Bolden’s reaction is pitch-perfect, and the overwhelming sense of hope and relief shared by the two actors in the initial moments following the announcement is one of the show’s highlights. But as the painful reality of Winston’s life sentence begins to sink in, envious feelings become hostility, putting the duo’s production of Antigone at risk. As the men overcome their anguish and shame together, they reveal how friendship can heal the broken spirit, a theme so prevalent in the playwright’s work that it must be true.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Creative Team: Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, John Kami (playwrights), James Bohnen (Director), JR Lederie (Light Design), Tim Morrison (Set Design), Rachel Laritz (Costume Design), Victoria Delorio (Sound Design)

Cast: La Shawn Banks, Austin Talley, Kamal Angelo Bolden

 Recommended production links:

Review: “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”

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Victory Gardens and Teatro Vista presents:

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

by Kristoffer Diaz
directed by Eddie Torres
thru November 1st (buy tickets)
reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Midway through rehearsals for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, actor Christian Litke took a foot to the face that landed him in the emergency room, suborbital socket bone beneath one eye pulverized. Opening night, he went on with a Technicolor shiner you could see from the back row. Per Kristoffer Diaz’s strict must-not-look-like-fight-choreography stage directions, Litke proceeded to take another half a dozen “camel kicks” in the kisser – as well as a few spine-rattling power-bombs. As it is in real life, the professional wrestling world depicted in Chad Deity is a brand of fakery that’s truly brutal.

Chad-Deity-1 While audiences aren’t apt to suffer physical damage like Litke, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is a knock-out victory of equal parts brains and brawn.

Power-bombs (wherein one’s spine hits the floor at a velocity surely spines were not intended to withstand) and lightning-quick roundhouses aside, Diaz’ ground (and bone) breaking take on the world of professional wrestling isn’t rooted in violence for the sake of shock, although it’s plenty violent and often shocking. It doesn’t traffic in the pandering stereotypes that fuel the WWE, although it uses those stereotypes point out their ridiculousness. This is a tale of race, racism and all-American boys grasping at the shiny, illusive brass ring of the All American Dream. It unfolds in hip-hop rhythms and is infused with some of the most politically incorrect language you’ll hear outside a meeting of the Alabama Chapter of the John Birch Society.

In director Eddie Torres, Diaz has a collaborator able to grasp and convey this incendiary material without missing a beat. The script requires a keen ear for both polyglot urban rhythms and the unctuous whitebread idiocy. Torres hears them all, and makes them resonate.

Chad Deity (Kamal Angelo Bolden , looking like the after photo in one of those back-of-the-magazine protein powder ads) is a professional wrestling champ who – as his bigot boss Everett K. Olsen (James Krag, a perfect mix of oiliness and ignorance) likes to say – makes people glad to be American. When Chad wins a fight, the terrorists lose.

But the real hero of Chad Deity is Macedonia Guerra (Desmin Borges, in a breakout performance that should have every agent in town clamoring to meet with him), aka The Mace. Macedonia’s job is to make the likes of Chad Deity look good. Stars like Chad Deity can’t exist without people like the Mace willing to act like they’ve lost every bout. Borges is a wholly endearing mix of self-deprecation and fierce pride. He knows he’s far more intelligent than his boss will ever be. He also knows that all his innate intelligence isn’t worth a slap in a world that prefers its villains and heroes in simple, black and white terms.

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So Mace suits up like a Frito Bandito outfit every fight, declares that he lives to steal American jobs and send American money back to drug lords in Mey-hee-co and lets Chad beat the crap out of him. Because when Chad Deity wins, Americans know why they’re fighting in Afghanistan, E.K. declares. To which the Mace sighs under his bright red sombrero and resignedly shakes his maracas.

For Macedonia, a way up in the wrestling world presents itself in Vigneshwar Padujar (Usman Ally), a multi-lingual Brooklyn-born Indian kid who is, no matter where he goes, “the most amazing thing in the room.” Charisma might owe Chad Deity money, but VP owns the entire fricking bank.

“I’m gonna get you a job,” Madedonia tells VP, and so begins the career of Chad Deity’s next enemy. E.K., in a move so awful it’s hilarious, has VP hit the ring as The Fundamentalist, a “Moslem” who enters flanked by women in burkas and praising Allah. In the lead up to a pay-per-view bout with Chad, the Fundamentalist beats up guys with names like Billy America (Litke, draped in a confederate flag and entering to a blast of Sweet Home Alabama) and The Patriot (also Litke, this time wearing an American flag). The fights manage to be both a tragic commentary on ugly Americans like E.K. and a wildly amusing mockery of them.

As animosity in the ring starts bleeding into real life, the dynamic between wrestlers becomes ever more complicated. As Macedonia worriedly notes, without community among in-ring enemies, wrestling gets dangerous. So as Chad and VP come to despise each other for real, the looming bout between them become fraught with the possibility of unscripted danger.

By having greased up, impossibly muscle-y men tear through the audience waving flags and shouting threats, Chad Deity manages to instigate the kind of audience participation you’d find at ringside at a Vegas championship bout. It’s wildly fun, wickedly funny and deeply provocative. In the so-called fake world of professional wrestling, Diaz captures profundity, adventure, aspirations and true triumph. The result is a theatrical prize.

Rating: «««½

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continues through Nov. 1 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $20 – $48.For more information call 773/871-3000 or go to www.victorygardens.org.

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