Before he was a moviestar and joined the pop culture pantheon with his portrayal of the Black Panther superhero, Chadwick Boseman, who died last week, wrote a play produced in Chicago.
In 2005, Congo Square Theatre Company staged Boseman’s Deep Azure, inspired by the killing of a friend and classmate, Prince Jones, by a police officer. It was the fledgling company’s first commissioned play — inflected with hip-hop rhymes that also addressed anorexia and life on the campus of a historically Black college.
Boseman’s Howard University classmate Derrick Sanders, a Congo Square founder, directed Deep Azure.
“I was looking for something new, something cutting edge to bring something different to the table that we could do as an ensemble that nobody could pull off quite like we could,” Sanders said.
He knew Boseman as a poet and a playwright so Sanders turned to his friend, expressing a vision of urban prose meets Shakespeare. This was well before Boseman moved to Los Angeles and embarked on Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall title roles.
“Deep Azure was really about heightened language and how we could explore heightened language inside a Black community, a Black ethos,” Sanders said. Critics wrote positive reviews, with one saying Boseman could become Congo Square’s grand young muse, but some others felt thrown off by the hip-hop language.
Boseman came to Chicago to workshop the play. Before every rehearsal, he instructed the cast to freestyle in a cipher.
“Chad was real introspective, so you never really knew how he was feeling about it until you heard his laugh and then it was — OK, we got it,” said actor and ensemble member Ron Conner who performed in Deep Azure.
Boseman’s death last week of colon cancer surprised the world — including friends from the theater world who say he remained unpretentious after fame and ruminative about his role as an artist. His love of martial arts and African history did not waver.
“His capacity to be loving only grew with his stardom. He made more room in his heart,” Sanders said. Boseman was a groomsman in his wedding and became an artistic associate at Congo Square. “We spent hours and hours talking about art and the implication of Blackness in different forms of art.”
Maya-Camille Broussard worked on Deep Azure as an assistant director and knew Boseman at Howard when she was a freshman and he an upperclassman. She recalled him on campus camped out in front of the offices of playwriting professors in the mid- to late 1990s.
“He was a Southern boy that had a hippie neo-soul vibe. He did not look like the other guys on campus. He was not trying to fit in with North Face puffy coats. He wore wide-legged jeans, satchel strapped across the shoulder and always a notepad and pen in his hand,” Broussard said.
Broussard recalled Boseman wrote hip hop rhymes in a play before the popularity of playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Chad was a pioneer. Rare and unchartered and brave in the theater world. I have so much respect for him,” Broussard said.
Congo Square ensemble member Javon Johnson also was an actor in Deep Azure. He and Boseman hail from the same hometown, Anderson, S.C., where their families knew each other. They reconnected when Congo Square formed and became close friends, each performing or directing each other’s plays and short films.
“If you work with Chad as an artist, you want him to be involved with everything you do. He’s that magnificent of a storyteller. As an artist, he’s so grounded and well rounded. He had so much depth and insight and intuition,” Johnson said. “There wasn’t much of anything I would do that Chad wouldn’t be involved in. I trusted anything he would bring to any project.”
Johnson said he cherished that their conversations never veered toward the glamorous parts of the industry such as awards and celebrity.
“Chad was on a quiet mission, and there was a bit of a mystery to him. He was a grounded spiritual person and so connected to his people and history. He thrived on purpose,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t about being a Hollywood actor. It was about changing the world.”
Last Friday Johnson sent Boseman a text. He didn’t get a response. He then got the call about his friend’s passing.