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: Goodman’s “Boleros for the Disenchanted”

A touching journey of one woman’s quest for love

 Boleros-group

Playwright Jose Rivera takes us on an emotionally touching journey through the eyes and soul of his mother as she experiences the raw struggles, joys, flaws, disappointments and selfless choices that love demands. As a young woman in Puerto Rico, innocent and filled with optimism in the strength of love, she leaves her unsuitable fiancé and meets the man she will marry. Boleros for the Disenchanted, Boleros-2playing at Goodman Theatre, is about whether that love can sustain 40 years later, after the truths of life have been unveiled.

Rivera’s story begins in the early 1950’s in Puerto Rico with a breathtaking set designed by Linda Buchanan filled with an assortment of flowers, and bright simply constructed housing. This Puerto Rican set is electrified with the romantic colors of the sky created by lighting designer (Joseph Appelt.)

The cast of six actresses and actors each take on multiple roles as the play ages itself through the years. With the outstanding direction of Henry Godinez, the transition of the characters’ lives over forty years has a natural fluidity and builds in intensity as it pushes various emotional nerves each act.

As the story begins, young Flora (Elizabeth Ledo) is engaged to marry the smooth talking charismatic machismo Manuelo (Feliz Solis) but she recently discovered that he has been cheating on her with another woman. Raised in a strict Catholic household, Flora was keeping herself pure for him. Flora’s mother warns her about being with a man like Manuelo but also speaks about the role of a woman in a marriage and dismisses the hurtful actions of men as it being in their nature. This conversation between Young Flora and her mother is continuously funny and made boleros_eusebioand floramore so by their ability to act as if they see no humor in their lines. Flora has witnessed, as we witness, her father’s (Rene Rivera) emotional flar-ups and how her mother copes with these individual moments and maintains their marriage.

Her father’s brash actions towards his wife and daughter leave the audience with a bit of distaste for his character, but the portrayal is realistic for the social norms of the time and emphasizes the social suppression of women. He also represents the Boleros-4sentiment of the elder Puerto Rican society, a disappointment in the deterioration of their country, which is mainly blamed on the United States. Neighbors with in the community are leaving for places like New York and Chicago, produce is being taken to the United States and being sold back to them at inflated prices, and the traditional values of the past are being taken for granted. The value of family, honor and happiness over wealth remains in Flora’s household, and her parents hope she will marry a good Puerto Rican who will remain in Puerto Rico.

Manuelo also attempts to justify his polygamous actions by explaining the biological nature of men, but his refusal to Boleros-6remain faithful to her forces her to leave him. Manuelo’s charismatic style of saying something ridiculous but making it sound romantic and sincere is gut-wrenchingly funny as he tries to romanticize his promiscuous ways.

Heart broken but uplifted with the excuse to visit her free-spirited eccentric cousin Petra (Liz Fernandez) Flora takes a trip to the “big” city. Against her traditional upbringing of female purity Flora and Petra are sitting alone outside when they meet a young soldier who is interested in Flora. Young Eusebio (Joe Minoso) is a kind patient man who draws the audience’s affection through his sincere love for Flora and desire for her happiness.

Boleros-3 Does Eusebio grow up to be the man and husband that Flora believes he is? Does their love still flourish with the same excitement and electricity that they had in their youth while meeting under the Puerto Rican sun?

Nine children later, living alone in America, and taking care of her now disabled husband, Jose Rivera tells us the story of how his mother champions love in its most beautiful and encouraging states along with the most ugly and defeating moments that life brings.

Jose Rivera’s ability to tell his parent’s story with heart-felt honesty astounds me. The inclusion of multiple themes such as migration, the loss of traditional values in individual progress, the roles of men and women and the meaning of true happiness all created a complicated mix much like the lives of his parents. The strength and vulnerability shown in Flora and her husband Eusebio are beautifully played by Boleros-7Sandra Marquez and Rene Rivera. They capture the depth and contradicting emotions that come with forty years of marriage.

This beautiful story had me laughing for 2 hours and crying at the end. It left a knot in my stomach and throat that only a story capturing the deepest truth of love can create. This play represents love in real relationships and the truth that lies behind the stories of our lives. In the end we see the strength that can surface when we choose to love.

Rating: ««««

Where: Goodman Theatre

Through: July 26th

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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)