WARNING: This article uses racial and ethnic epithets.
As we enter February, it's no coincidence that several mainstream theaters are offering plays featuring African-American actors and directors. "Mainstream," after all, refers to a theater which is white-managed and draws a mostly-white audience, except when the theater produces an ethnic-themed work. February being Black History Month, the time has arrived once again, and so we have plays about civil war in Liberia and civil war in the Sudan, and how a white boy and his adopted black brother grow up together.
To be sure, some mainstream theaters offer onstage diversity all year around and support the work of actors, directors and playwrights of various colors, but most still do not. It's a fact that the vast majority of Chicago mainstream theaters do not have anyone who is Black, Asian, Latino or Middle Eastern within their Upper Management structures. And it's no secret that several of our most celebrated ensemble companies took decades to add non-white actors. The color bar—to use an old term for the racial divide—remains only partially blurred, and it's a divide extending well beyond actors and managers, playwrights and directors: how many designers of color do you know? Or stage managers? Or theater critics for that matter?
WARNING: This article uses racial and ethnic epithets.
Once, after a dose of a mind-altering drug, I spent hours passing the white silk of a hammock over my palm again and again, trying to ascertain whether the array of colors appearing in the interstices were real or an hallucination. I was never able to resolve the question to my satisfaction but contemplating it kept me too busy to enjoy any genuine hallucinations that might have arisen. There is an irony here somewhere but I’m not drunk enough to figure out what it is.
This inability to resolve something came to mind after seeing two shows in the past week which ended with a woman onstage poised between two equally likely courses of action. The blackouts at the end of Hallie Gordon’s excellent Eclipsed at Northlight and Jessica Thebus’s likewise excellent though incomparably different Sex With Strangers at Steppenwolf leave the audience to decide what happens next. So what I want to know is: is this a pattern, or am I just hallucinating?
Are we at a time (in history, in our lives) where sad endings are just unbearable but happy
The first time around, it was a Cubs hat. Now, in the Q Brothers’ remounted “Funk It Up About Nothin’” at Chicago Shakespeare, the set’s naked Cupid-esque statue wears a Bears helmet. Peeing Pete—who is, sadly, no longer functional—will keep wearing it despite the Bears’ loss Sunday. “Hey, the Cubs never won,” says JQ. Peeing Pete’s headgear is one of the few things native Chicagoans JQ and GQ have changed about the show they brought to the stage in 2008, a “hip-hoptation” of “Much Ado About Nothing” that owes little to the Bard but its plot, bawdiness, and appreciation of wit.
Pared to 65 minutes, the Q Brothers’ manic pocket-size production features just six actors, including the Brothers, and an onstage DJ. But since everyone plays at least two characters—well, all the costume changes must make for some pretty impressive backstage farce. The biggest change to “Funk It Up” is new cast member Jillian Burfete, very funny as loopy ingénue Hero. “We couldn’t just swap out a person—the play is rap, but it’s also Monty Python-esque,” say the Qs, talking over each other. “Who plays the characters is so important.
Chicago's reputation as a place where New York shows are born has come a long, long way from the occasional shot 20 years ago to a regular parade of productions nowadays. Many are shows that began life as locally-produced plays or musicals, among them Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" at Steppenwolf, the jukebox show "Million Dollar Quartet" at the Apollo Theater, Chicago Dramatists' smash cop drama "A Steady Rain," Next Theatre's original musical adaptation of "The Adding Machine" and Kristofer Diaz's "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" at Victory Gardens. Pre-Broadway shows also have found fertile territory in the big Loop houses where "Spamalot, the Musical," "The Producers" and "The Addams Family" are among successes that did their try-outs here.
Some people called the Chicago theater of the early ‘70s “rock ‘n’ roll,” some called it “scratch ‘n’ sniff.” But I always preferred “groan ‘n’ grunt,” because the most memorable of the shows featured people who could barely express themselves–at least in words.
True West and In the Belly of the Beast are long gone, but their spirit lives on in a trio of excellent shows that opened last week. Port portrays the life of poor Liverpudlians seeking a means of escape from their narrow and squalid lives in England. The Beauty Queen of Leenane portrays the life of poor Irish people seeking a means of escape from their narrow and squalid lives in England and Ireland. Lakeboat portrays the life of poor ethnics seeking a means of escape from their narrow and squalid lives hauling steel on Lake Michigan.
With over 800 shows each year, Chicago theater companies often jostle in vain to open their shows on a night when no other show is opening. At least several times a year, theater critics face calendars crammed with a dozen or more new productions opening in a three or four day stretch. So it was good news for the off-Loop Profiles Theatre when they found Thursday, Jan. 27 wide-open for their first night of Neil LaBute's "reasons to be pretty" (sic), which they announced many weeks ago. Then, just days ago, the Goodman Theatre trumpeted the last-minute arrival of the politically-important Belarus Free Theatre, invited by Goodman to bring their hit, "Being Harold Pinter," to Chicago for a month (see related story). The opening performance? Thursday, Jan. 27 at 8 p.m., exactly the same day and hour Profiles had selected.
What to do? All Chicago theaters know that the biggies—Goodman, Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, Broadway In Chicago, etc.—plan their calendars with little regard for each other, let alone Chicago's smaller off-Loop troupes.