Review: The Last Saint on Sugar Hill (MPAACT)

     
     

A new modern tragedy classic is born

  
  

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins.

  
MPAACT presents
  
  
The Last Saint on Sugar Hill
   
Written by Keith Josef Adkins
Directed by Carla Stillwell
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 12th  |  tickets: $23  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

It is a privilege to see new theater works from the outset. MPAACT’s production of The Last Saint on Sugar Hill is one of those rare privileged moments in time. This is destined to be a classic written by Keith Josef Adkins and directed by Carla Stillwell – Resident Director of MPAACT. Adkins opens the hot button issue of gentrification and those who profit from it for examination of motives and consequences.

The Pedigrew family lives a comfortable life in what remains of hardscrabble Harlem. The residence of former President Clinton, gourmet coffee, and wine shops threaten to change the landscape and remove the people who know no other home.

In a stunningly visceral performance, journeyman actor Trinity Murdock potrays the character of Napoleon Pedigrew, who presides over the last of the Harlem buildings gone to seed. I have seen Murdock in several roles on Chicago stages and he can be depended upon to play the neighborhood good guy or singing griot.

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins. Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins. The role of Napoleon Pedigrew is rooted in ancient traditional tragedy and 20th Century social unrest. Playwright Adkins has carefully crafted a non-stereotypical role in Napoleon. I say that because it is an unflinching and honest look at what has been unspoken on the mainstream stage. Mr. Murdock presents a sociopath whose interests and wealth are literally ripped from the bodies and souls of those who are unfortunate enough to inhabit his buildings or contain his DNA.

The language is street raw and dismissive of political or societal correctness. There is no "N" word- it is nigger said with ferocity. At first, the rap that flows from Napoleon is pithy and comedic in the folksy style of that favorite or feared drunk relative. It is funny in the style of Richard Pryor performing for a Black audience. As the play barrels forward like a bullet, Napoleon Pedigrew’s words take on a frightening tilt. Here is a man who felt the spike of poverty and the chokehold of the underclass so keenly that his conscience snapped. Trinity Murdock plays this character laid bare and full of angry hubris. Napoleon brags of his knowledge from snippets of PBS to which he donates to give him the cache of current education. It is a bravura performance.

Napoleon Pedigrew’s sons are the vehicles for his parasitic real estate empire and the victims of his stranglehold on their memories. Mateo Smith plays the role of eldest son Dexter Pedigrew. Dexter was a promising med student who has been drawn into his father’s world of cracking heads for rent and unscrupulous methods to hide cheap or dangerous repairs. Mr. Smith gives a nuanced and heartbreaking performance as a man who wants to please his father and somehow be of service to the neighborhood that is crumbling under his feet. Napoleon tells Dexter that he is a thug and it would be a waste of his talent to be a doctor.

Dexter’s childhood holds a traumatic event that pressed his humanity to the side at his father’s behest. Napoleon tells his son, "Thinking is for thinkers and you are a thug down to the bone." He pounds the thought into Dexter’s head that boxing is the greatest form of capitalism and one of the fringe benefits of his daddy’s sperm. Smith subtly recoils at each of the jabs from the father character. Each jolt builds in a slow and controlled simmer that is on an equally frightening steady boil at the climax of the play.

The youngest son Z is played by David Goodloe. At first Z seems to play into his father’s world of debauchery. He reduces women to asses, thighs, and panties. Mr. Goodloe is at first funny as the tail-chasing stud playing with his daddy’s money. His father has him under the control of the promise of being comfortable no matter what happens in the neighborhood. Z gleefully hits happy hour at the new fancy cigar bar to see how much sex he can rack up. It’s sad to know that his youth has been wasted on violence and sex as an education. Napoleon encourages the hedonism in misplaced elevation of how he can rule the world with money.

Goodloe’s performance evolves into a man discontented with what his life has become. His realization comes as a sudden jolt after the father is fully revealed as a monster. Goodloe fleshes out the Pedigrew dysfunction by playing an unwitting victim who was never taught to be a fully evolved and involved man. The cast is rounded out by Terry Francois and Sati Word in perfectly crafted motif roles that fill in the story. Mr. Francois plays a homeless man who becomes the living conscience for Dexter. It is a beautiful performance that never becomes maudlin. Sati Word is another MPAACT ensemble regular that I last saw in the highly-recommended Tad in the 5th City (my review). He plays medical resident Joseph who reminds Dexter of his potential and responsibility to himself and his community. He represents another facet of Dexter’s conscience. Mr. Word is an engaging presence that I would love to see in a showcased role.

It should be noted that opening night was full of local actors and friends of the cast. I found it unsettling that they kept laughing long after it became obvious that Napoleon Pedigrew believed all of his egotistical folksy ravings. He meant that he would cut the heads off of his children if it would get him what he wanted. I felt great sorrow when Napoleon stated," America is trying to kill us Black men. We are an endangered species scrambling for our own crumbs. The only way to stop the watchful eye of The Man is to sit on a throne of cash!" Like any great art, there is painful or recognizable truth contained in the words, notes, or brushstrokes. It seems as if they have not seen much of the life they portray on the stage and I felt that it was very disrespectful of their fellow actors.

This show is something that should be put on your viewing schedule. It is entertaining but also a telling social commentary about how business gets done in America. Bernie Madoff and Donald Trump are just the tip of a very dirty iceberg. Also, Trinity Murdock’s performance is not to be missed. Bravo!

     
    
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins.

MPAACT’s The Last Saint on Sugar Hill continues through June 12th at Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N. Clark), with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $23, and can be purchased from the MPAACT website.

  
  

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Review: Ghosts of Atwood (MPAACT)

     
     

Exorcising the past without reconciliation

 

  
     

  
MPAACT presents
  
Ghosts of Atwood
  
Written by Shepsu Aahku
Directed by
Andrea J. Dymond
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $21-$23  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Ghosts of Atwood has a fascinating and voyeuristic premise – a chance to see behind the walls of a midwestern boys military school. The fascination comes from the fact that the narrator is a still-traumatized Black man looking back thirty or so years. He comes from a past of being only one of the few allowed in the White world. It was supposed to be a privilege and an honor to assimilate and pave the way for others to follow.

As suspected, the grass is not green in the verdant woods of Wisconsin for toy soldier Quinn. MPAACT playwright-in-residence Shepsu Aahku is the author of Ghosts of Atwood.  His work is a memoir of his own time in military school back in the 1970’s and, according to Aahku, sometimes memory cannot be trusted. It turns out that this is a rationalization fed to impressionable children to mask the horrors inflicted upon them. What is the truth? Who is your brother when it hits the fan?

Quinn is dropped off at Atwood while his still loving mother gets her life in order. He comes from a supportive family that wants him to have a good life, the kind of life advertised in the Sunday supplement magazine.

Quinn is brutally hazed by cadet Moose and his posse on his first day at Atwood. Zack Shornick is brilliant as the abusive and abandoned Moose. He blends fear, anger, and atavism in an explosive performance.

Equally brilliant is Corey Spruill as cadet Whitehead – the only other black kid at Atwood. Spruill quiet performance simmers and then boils over in a seething climax that breaks the heart from the shame of recognition. Whitehead has been at Atwood for seven years and doesn’t classify himself as anything other than a soldier. The moment that he allows vulnerability, the shell breaks completely.

Aahku’s structure for  Ghosts of Atwood is pretty straightforward. But in an effort to distinguish this work from similar stories like “Lord of the Flies” or “Taps”, he adds an esoteric quality to the ‘ghosts’. Imaging horrific abuse as a monster under the bed drives the fact that the cadets are really children. 

   

The ghost causes one child, Bobby, to be a chronic bed wetter at the mercy of Moose and the other boys. Jack Miggins is heartbreaking as Bobby, who should be playing baseball but is Moose’s unfortunate ‘bitch’. His breakdown recalls the demise of Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

The grownups in Ghosts of Atwood are stock military characters. The role of Hammer (Dan Loftus) is a disciplinarian handing out demerits for dirty dress whites and a paddling for unruly behavior. Loftus projects a martial image of paternal firmness. Niall McGinty plays the jolly wilderness guide Major Taggert. His folksy Mayberry demeanor adds a jolt to his character being revealed as a malevolent force.

Wardell Julius Clark plays the lead role of cadet Quinn. His character is seen as a teenager and then as an adult decades later still haunted by Atwood. Clark’s performance comes off as strangely tight and stiff even in light of his character’s memories. It’s given that Quinn is well spoken and in a military milieu but it doesn’t jibe with the more naturalistic method of the rest of the cast.

Actors James Holbrook and Jack Moore give excellent performances as boys who’ have molded into military life. Mr. Moore is chilling and funny as the perfect Drill Captain whose uniform is full of braids and medals. Mr. Holbrook also fits the military image as well. His character Waddelow is the cadet who gets to log in the demerits and inflict abuse unpunished for the most part. He has mastered the smug sneer and is physically menacing, which is perfect for the role.

I would be remiss to not mention the glorious Trinity P. Murdock as Nesta the Rastafarian griot/singer. He is a sort of Greek Chorus underscoring the present day Quinn’s post- traumatic memories and the means by which Whitehead coped with Atwood in the past. Whitehead believes in the Rastafarian idea of justice and resistance through Jah and sacramental spliffs. It is lost on naïve Quinn but remains a constant song in his adult memory through Nesta.

Ghosts of Atwood is designed well. The imaging of the ghost as an undulating black mist gives one the chills and provides for an appropriate visual metaphor of a child’s nightmare memories. The sparse dormitory and wood footlockers give an authentic old boarding school feel to the set.

I give kudos to the cast and Drill Team Choreographer Demetria Thomas for precision worthy of competition. Also, a special mention is given to Kevin Douglas for excellent fight choreography. These scenes are brutal and have to be precise and authentic to have the intended impact.

This is a production that should be on your list of shows to see this month. Ghosts of Atwood is a chilling and authentic exploration of the truth that society is not willing to remember. With resident director Andrea J. Dymond doing an exemplary job shaping and pacing the show,  Ghosts is a powerful indictment of what authority is willing to ignore or deny under the guise of ivy-covered utopias at the expense of the future.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Ghost of Atwood runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm until February 27th. The Greenhouse Theatre Center is located 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. Call 773-404-7336 for box office information or check out the website www.mpaact.org

   
  

REVIEW: Doo-Lister’s Blues (National Pastime Theater)

Remembering the Blues

 

 Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater 2

   
National Pastime Theater 
   
Doo-Lister’s Blues
   
Written by Terry Abrahamson
Directed by
Victory Cole 
at
National Pastime, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
through November 28  |  tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I remember the west side in the 1960’s up close and personal. My grandparents lived down the street from WVON and just south of Madison when it went up in flames. Doo Lister’s Blues is a recreation of that time from one family’s point of view. Playwright Terry Abrahamson has attempted to put that time in a capsule with the burgeoning new Black music scene as the dramatic focus.

Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater 3 Doo is a barber on the West Side who is trying to keep things together. He and his wife want to adopt a baby. They present the perfect couple on paper. He is a business owner and she is a schoolteacher. Warren Levon plays the part of Doo with an understated grace and sweet humor. Lucy Sandy plays his wife Maria with a perfect counterpoint of common sense to Doo’s dreamer style. At the opening of Act I the riots are already in progress and Doo has remained in his shop to protect it while sending his wife to the relative safety of Maywood. Life is just okay and his shop is safe until a force of nature named Rebecca walks into his shop offering to set up a record business as a side gig. Victoria Abram-Copenhaver is perfect in the role of Rebecca, projecting the idealism and fearlessness that I recall about some of the White activists that appeared in the neighborhood when I was a kid. Unbeknownst to Doo, Rebecca is having an affair with his younger brother Buck. Buck is a 4F draft dodger with the FBI on his tail.

Doo wants to be a songwriter but his songs are treacle about chocolate love and candy kisses. Actually, the songs are a pretty funny motif to the first act. Mr. Levon is a portly man reminiscent of Barry White in his romanticism and looks. Rebecca shows no interest in his songs and yet gives him encouragement to change the scope of his music.

Terry Francois plays the role of Buck Lister. I have seen Mr. Francois in MPAACT Theatre productions, and he brings the same excellent crafting to the role of Buck Lister. Buck is doomed on all fronts. He is hiding in a garage in Uptown where he works as a valet. Add to the mix his relationship with a White girl. That is no big deal now but it was called miscegenation back then and was outright illegal or cause for violence. Mr. Francois plays the role with a light humor and grace that makes him even more horrible end even sadder. Agent Jewel Moton, played by Damien Crim, is in hot pursuit of Buck Lister. He is the rare Black agent and sent in to talk sense to the family ‘Negro to Negro’. Mr. Crim handles the role quite well. It is a hot potato of political and social implications. Agent Moton has advanced in his career, but he has become what we used to call ‘The Man’ and is not to be trusted. Mr. Crim displays, with marvelous subtlety, the emotions of a man conflicted and yet dedicated to his job at the same time.

It’s Act II where the play picks up steam and really delves into the music and Cultural Revolution that was the result of the violence. After the murder of Buck, Doo adopts a Black Revolutionary stance. He wears a dashiki and skullcap and the tone of his music changes. Kenneth Johnson plays the role of sidekick Catfish and he gives Doo a gentle ribbing while still being supportive. Mr. Johnson does well in the underwritten role. I wish that his character had been fleshed out more. Part of the play’s conflict resides in the angry turn that Doo’s music has taken.  I clearly remember the music of a group called ‘The Last Poets,’ and his music gives homage to them. My next-door neighbor would put her speakers in the window and blast the lyrics to the neighborhood. The music encouraged an uprising as well as pride in one’s roots before ‘Roots’. There was the exhortation to fight the cops, and Stokely Carmichael screaming ‘burn baby burn’ supported it. The production does a fine job of portraying those times and the consequences of the so-called revolution.

Doo’s music cannot be played on the radio because it could incite more riots. His wife loses her job for consorting with her own husband. One disc jockey agrees to play the music and Agent Moton gets to him. Rebecca goes on the run with the master tapes and Doo Lister ends up in jail for daring to practice the Constitutional right to free speech.

Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater 4 Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater 6 Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater

The National Pastime Theater Ensemble does a fine job reproducing the sights and sounds of the times. The barber/record shop is spot on with the Black Power fist in the window. Upon closer inspection there is the classic Huey Newton poster that displays the legendary Black Panther with a spear and a rifle. (I still have his albums.) Even the sounds of the scratchy AM radio sounded wonderful to me.

The company needs to work out some lighting cues. Before we were let in we were told of sound cue problems. That was not the case but the glaring house lights came up each time a scene changed. Another glitch was the insertion of the rapper between scenes along with the multimedia display. I presume that it was supposed to show the roots of rap going back to ‘The Last Poets’ but it felt ham-fisted and sounded even worse. Rapper Al Mayweathers held the microphone too close, obscuring any clarity of his words. It may have been to make the play more relevant to younger audiences but it served more to disjoint the rhythm of the action. History is cyclical; perhaps today’s rappers have a similar frame of reference, but it does not blend well with the story or the action.

Director Victor Cole makes good use of the supporting cast.. The characters appear in expressionistic light as if frozen in time. It’s a good way to present the police and corporate entities that served to suppress freedom of speech and expression in music. That time in history has so many layers that one two-hour play could not cover it without skimming over important facts. Abrahamson has selected wisely to focus on one family while perhaps inciting people’s curiosity to look up some of the other facts about Chicago during this time.

For the most part, Doo Lister’s Blues provides a thoughtful and enjoyable couple of hours with Chicago’s history. My companion and I were abuzz with memories about that time, which is definitely a nice side effect.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Doo Lister’s Blues runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through November 28th. The National Pastime Theater is located at 4139 N. Broadway in Chicago. For more details call 773-327-7077 or log on to www.bluesonbroadway.com

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REVIEW: First Words (MPAACT Theatre)

Illuminating "First Words"

 

Adian with blocks Distorted

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.