Often called MLK Day, the third Monday of January has been officially observed to honor the civil rights leader in all 50 states since 2000. It is an American federal holiday so schools, banks, and some business are closed.
The day has become a chance to honor Martin Luther King Jr with service projects, free museum visits and special programs. Here are some of the events and places to spend quality time on MLK Day this year, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020.
Performance of “The MLK Project: The Fight for Civil Rights”
Glencoe-based Writers Theatre holds annual performances of “the MLK Project.” Written by Yolanda Androzzo, directed by Sophiyaa Nayarand featuring Adhana Reid, “The Fight for Civil Rights” production will be held Jan. 20, 2020 at 10:30 a.m. at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N Clark Street in Chicago. The event is free and includes a post-show community discussion. Attendees also have free museum admission for the whole day. Folr more information visit Writers Theatre/Education.
The Writers Theatre production is a tour that goes to schools and community centers then closes at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place, Chicago, 7 p.m. Feb. 28, 2020. The performance is free and can be reserved in advance by calling (773) 947-0600.
The Adler Planetarium at the far eastern end of the Museum Campus at 1300 S. Lake Shore Dr., has one of its free General Admission days for Illinois residents on Jan. 20, 2020. It is also an Illinois Resident Discount Day which means that tickets to other exhibits and shows not included in General Admission can be obtained at discount prices. For more information call (312) 922-7827 or visit Adler Planetarium/special offers.
The Shedd Aquarium, located in the middle of the Museum Campus at 1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., has a similar arrangement for MLK Day. There is free general admission and discounts for special exhibit and shows for Illinois residents. For more information call (312) 939-2438 or visit Shedd Aquarium/discount and free days.
The Field Museum, sitting at the entrance to the Museum Campus at 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., also has one of its free general admission days on Jan. 20, 2020. As part of the Illinois Resident Discount Days, passes to special exhibits are available at lower prices. For more information call (312) 922.9410 or visit Field Museum/free admission days.
Free Museum of Science and Industry admission.
MSI, south of downtown near Hyde Park neighborhood at 57oo s. Lake Shore Dr., has an Illinois Resident Free Day Jan. 20, 2020 so general admission is free plus special exhibits can be seen at discounted prices. For more information visit MSI tickets.
(See other free general admission and discount days at each museum link listed. The free days are for Illinois residents so valid ID is needed. Also check for other categories such as active military and education personnel.)
Martin Luther King Day of Service
Some communities have projects planned for MLK Day. North suburban Highland Park is holding its 11th annual Day of Service 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Jan. 20, 2020 at the Recreaction Center of Highland Park, 1207 Park Ave West, just east of IL Hwy 41. The projects will help area agencies. For more information visit Park District of Highland Park/MLK.
Of course, theater audiences want different things before going ahead to spend money and time on a show. Some folks prefer musicals, others like Shakespeare and some gravitate to shows that are different or particularly creative. Because opera is also dramatic theater that requires excellent acting, compelling story lines and fine voices, we include Lyric Opera productions when applicable.
Here is Chicago Theater and Arts reviewers’ list of favorite productions seen during 2019 which was designated by the City of Chicago and the League of Chicago Theatres as the Year of Chicago Theatre.
Francine Pappadis Friedman
“Jersey Boys” at the Auditorium Theatre in April, 2019. I headlined it: ‘Oh, what a night!” Amusing dialogue was interspersed with tremendous songs by four guys, the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons who were living in New Jersey. Not only did their songs keep the audience laughing, but even younger audience members were swinging and swaying in their seats. And many of their songs sang about love!
“Falsettos” at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in May/June 2019. I headlined it: “Let’s live life through music.” It was a fabulous musical taking place in New York in the 1970s, with a psychiatrist, gay men and women, and a little boy—one of the main characters—who was worried about his father’s sexuality when his parents got divorced. The story moved along with songs and the boy, whose father sang “Father to Son,” that said he’d always be there for him.
“Next to Normal” at Writers Theatre, Glencoe in June. Writers Theatre unerringly brought to the stage what life is like in a home where a family member is mentally ill. Penned by Brian Yorkey who also did the lyrics and with music by Tom Kitt, the show took three Tony awards in 2009. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama because even though it has highly expressive musical numbers, it is not a feel-good musical.
“Oslo” a Timeline Theatre production at the Broadway Playhouse in October, brilliantly revealed the behind the scenes negotiations in Norway that led up to the famed handshake on the White House lawn between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat in 1993. What “Oslo,” the multi-award-winning play by J. T. Rogers does is introduce audiences to Mona Juul, superbly acted by Bri Sudia whose sensible but passionate portrayal of the Norwegian diplomat who initiated the behind the scenes action, glides from serious to charming to comic, and to Scott Parkinson who as facilitator Rød-Larsen has the difficult task of making all the players in the sensitive negotiations, look good.
Don Giovanni” at the Lyric Opera House in November and December is an 18th century Mozart opera in perfect tune with #MeToo times. If you knew before seeing Lyric’s outstanding production of “Don Giovanni” that (Il dissouto punita, ossia il Don Giovanni), translates as “The Rake Punished, namely Don Giovanni “ (also The Libertine Punished), you would have some idea that the opera was not about a lover but about a powerful man who felt entitled to take sexual liberties. However, directed by Robert Falls, artistic director at Goodman Theatre, the Lyric production skillfully makes the comic moments funnier, the sexual attempts more offensive, the violence more dramatic and the punishment more tumultuous.
“International Falls” by Agency Theater Collective and End of the Line Production at the Nox Arca in August. It was an intimate play with truthful dialog that was well acted.
“My Life as A Country Song” by New American Folk Theatre at Chief O’Neill’s in October. It had very good original music.
My favorite is a theatrical event: the 3rd Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. More than 100 performances of 24 shows were given by professional puppeteers from 11 countries at 19 venues. I had the privilege of seeing “Ajijaak on Turtle Island,” the story of a young whopping crane who was accidentally separated from her parents during her first migration. Along the way to unification, she learned valuable life-lessons about herself and living in harmony with nature. Puppets of all sizes and styles, their handlers, musicians and dancers interacted seamlessly to present an engaging and unforgettable experience.
Comedy Kills in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” at Porchlight Music Theatre” mid January to mid March. This was my favorite show of the year because of the fine acting of Jefferson- Award Winner Matt Crowle who plays multiple roles of both men and women. This hilarious musical comedy tells the story of Monty Navarro, a conniving, down-on-his-luck Englishman who finds out he stands to inherit the earldom of Highhurst and substantial wealth if only he could eliminate his eight pesky relatives who stand in his way. Quickly as you can imagine, things start to go awry. But Navarro must keep on his toes with both his mistress and his fiancée… and not get put in jail. And those darting eyes… hysterical!
Well, even though the designation of Year of Chicago Theatre is about over, all of us at Chicago Theater and Arts think we’re lucky to have great theater on stages large and small throughout the Chicago area every year.
We know that the theater season doesn’t go by the calendar year at every venue but no matter how the season is divided, we are very much looking forward to seeing and reviewing the best of 2020.
We wish everyone an interesting theater experience in the new year.
Racism isn’t always a clear, conscious choice but activism and outrage regarding racism are choices in playwright Eleanor Burgess’ “The Niceties,” now at Writers Theatre.
When a well-regarded Caucasian Ivy-league history professor meets one of her students, a smart African-American anxious to turn in her paper on the American Revolution ahead of time so she can organize a protest at the school, their discussion dissolves from quiet, academic points to heated confrontation.
Arguably, a play that has been cut down to some of its basic tenets and character features works for some audiences and with some scripts. However, the 95-minute, one-act Sandra Delgado-Michael Halberstam adaption of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House (also called “A Doll House”) now at Writers Theatre, left me yearning for the original, three-act play.
To me, what makes the adaption worth seeing is its superb acting and directing.
The show nicely fits into scenic designer Arnel Sancianco’s charming Victorian parlor in WT’s intimate Gillian Theatre. It brings the action so close to the audience that no characters’ telling facial expressions, nods and shoulder shrugs are missed.
Well helmed by Lavina Jadhwani, the characters’ body language is as important as what they are saying and not saying. Both those points are essential in this version because of the missing character development that is found in Ibsen’s original play.
Did you have a favorite show seen this season, that’s season defined by the Equity Jeff Awards eligibility rules as Aug. 1 to July 31.
If it was a touring production presented by Broadway in Chicago it can make this publication, Chicago Theater and Arts,’ top ten list but it wouldn’t have been eligible for an Equity Jeff award.
So think again about shows you’ve seen at such Chicago area venues and theater companies as Court Theatre, Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, Lookingglass, Drury Lane, Paramount, et al. There are about 250 theater companies in the Chicago area, many of whom are non-equity
This season’s equity nominations were announced early this morning, Sept. 3 2019. For non-equity, nominations and award recipients see Jeff Awards Non-Equity. For the complete list of Jeff Equity Nominees in all categories visit Jeff Awards. (Play photos shown here are among this season’s equity nominations.)
But before looking at which theaters scored big with the Jeff Committee, know who or what about the awards.
About the Jeff Awards and eligibility
According to the Jeff website, the awards have been “honoring outstanding theatre artists annually since it was established in 1968.” It goes on to say, “With approximately 55 members representing a wide variety of backgrounds in theatre, the Jeff Awards is committed to celebrating the vitality of Chicago area theatre by recognizing excellence through its recommendations, awards, and honors.
Among the rules to be eligible are: “A theater organization that has a production determined by Actors’ Equity Association to be an equity production and wishes to have that production judged must notify the Equity Wing Chair by the 18th of the month before the month in which the opening performance of that production is to take place.”
In addition, “the theatre must show that it has committed to produce a minimum of 18 performances, excluding previews, over a period of at least 3 consecutive weeks. Additional requirements as to the minimum 18-performance rule are: at least one performance per week must take place on the weekend, one weekday matinee a week can be counted towards the minimum of 18 performances.
“Additional eligibility requirements: a. The Jeff Committee does not judge late-night performances (i.e., all curtains at or after 9:30 p.m.), puppet theatre, opera, performance art, children’s theatre, student or youth theatre, foreign language theatre, mime theatre, unscripted or improvised productions, or staged readings.”
“The Committee no longer judges Touring Productions under its prior (and now eliminated) separate category of Touring Production Awards. A specific production originating from a non-Chicago area CAT/LORT theatre (commonly referred to as a “Touring Production”) which is not being produced by a Chicago CAT/LORT Theatre is eligible for consideration if it is presented as part of that Theatre’s subscription.”
Among the nominations
Production – Play – Large
“Downstate” – Steppenwolf Theatre Company
“Indecent” – Victory Gardens Theater
“Photograph 51” – Court Theatre
“Radio Golf” – Court Theatre
“The Steadfast Tin Soldier” – Lookingglass Theatre Company
Production – Play – Midsize
“Frankenstein” – Remy Bumppo Theatre Company
“Noises Off” – Windy City Playhouse
“On Clover Road” – American Blues Theater
“The Recommendation” – Windy City Playhouse
“Something Clean” – Sideshow Theatre Company
and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
Production – Musical – Large
“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” – Drury Lane Productions
“Next to Normal” – Writers Theatre
“The Producers” – Paramount Theatre
“Six” – Chicago Shakespeare Theater
“The Wizard of Oz” – Paramount Theatre
Production – Musical – Midsize
“Caroline, or Change” – Firebrand Theatre
i/a/w TimeLine Theatre Company
“A Chorus Line” – Porchlight Music Theatre
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” – Porchlight Music Theatre
“Gypsy” – Porchlight Music Theatre
Production – Revue
“Djembe! The Show” – Doug Manuel, Ashley DeSimone and TSG Theatricals
“Women of Soul” – Black Ensemble Theater
“You Can’t Fake the Funk: A Journey through Funk Music”
– Black Ensemble Theater
Ensemble – Play
“Familiar” – Steppenwolf Theatre Company
“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf”
– Court Theatre
“Indecent” – Victory Gardens Theater
“Noises Off” – Windy City Playhouse
“Small Mouth Sounds” – A Red Orchid Theatre
“Twilight Bowl” – Goodman Theatre
Ensemble – Musical or Revue
“A Chorus Line” – Porchlight Music Theatre
“Million Dollar Quartet” – Marriott Theatre
“Queen of the Mist” – Firebrand Theatre
“Six” – Chicago Shakespeare Theater
“You Can’t Fake the Funk: A Journey through Funk Music”
– Black Ensemble Theater
New Work – Play
David Auburn – “The Adventures of Augie March” – Court Theatre
David Catlin – “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” – Lookingglass Theatre Company
Jenny Connell Davis – “Scientific Method” – Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
Ike Holter – “Lottery Day” – Goodman Theatre
Manual Cinema – “Frankenstein” – Court Theatre
Bruce Norris – “Downstate” – Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Jen Silverman – “Witch” – Writers Theatre
Mary Zimmerman – “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” – Lookingglass Theatre Company
New Work – Musical
David Cale – “We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time”
– Goodman Theatre i/a/w The Public Theater
Michael Mahler and Jason Brett – “Miracle” – William A. Marovitz and Arny Granat
Daniel Zaitchik – “Darling Grenadine” – Marriott Theatre
According to Jeff Award information, 192 nominations were made in 34 categories ranging from actors, directors and choreographers to scenic and costume design and more.
When taking all the categories into consideration Porchlight Music Theatre topped the nominations at 17, followed by Paramount Theatre with 16 and Court Theatre with 15.
The 51 st Annual Equity Jeff Awards ceremony honoring excellence in professional theater produced within the greater Chicago area will be Oct. 21, 2019 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace.
In Act II of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods,” the Baker and Cinderella, two of four main fairy-tale characters who survive the whole, Hamlet-like second act (Little Red and Jack (of beanstalk fame are the other two), explain that choices have consequences and everyone is connected in “No One Is Alone.”
It the characters sound like those folks encountered during childhood bedtime stories they may possibly come to life for some audience members during Act I. but that familiarity ends when Sondheim who composed the music and lyrics and Lapine who wrote the book, offers a scathing reality check in Act II.
The musical, garnering several Tony Awards including Best Score and Best Book when premiering on Broadway in 1987, pulls a moralistic, anti-happily after plot from stories primarily conceived or popularized by 17th century French fairy-tale founder Charles Perraultan (“Cinderella,” Little Red Riding Hood”) and 19th century German folklore authors and collectors, the Brothers Grimm (Rapunzel, Snow White). “Jack and the Beanstalk” is an English Fairy tale popularized by Joseph Jacobs started out n 1734 as “The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean.”
It all starts with “Rapunzel” when a husband steals veggies called rampion or rapunzel from the garden of a next-door neighboring witch to make his pregnant wife happy. The witch catches him and makes a deal to leave the couple alone if they will give her theirthe baby to raise. This story is uncovered when that man’s son, the Baker, and his wife are lonely without children and learn it’s because of the witch’s curse.
And so the musical is about what people wish for and their journey to achieve it. The witch tells them the curse will be removed if the couple brings her a “cow as white as milk, cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and slipper as pure as gold” in three days.
Experienced theater goers know that not all memorable plays are on stage in the city. Chicago’s suburban theaters also put on Jeff award-winning productions. To be sure to catch a show you want to see, copy it and save or mark those productions on the calendar. (Note: Some companies spell their work and space “theater,” others use “theatre.” Both are correct.) A look at the coming suburban theater season is the last round-up in Chicago Theater and Arts’ Sneak Peek Series.
The theatre is in a school building at 300 S. Waukegan Rd. Lake Forest.
Citadel is doing “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Sept. 18-Oct. 20 followed by “Annie,” Nov. 20-Dec. 22. “The Fantasticks” start out 2020 Feb. 5-Mar. 8, followed by “Brighton Beach Memoirs” Apr. 22-May 24.
For tickets and other information call (847) 735-8554 and visit Citadel Theatre.
The theatre does musical productions in the Marriott Resort at 10 Marriott Dr,. Lincohnshire.
“Darling Grenadine” continues through Aug. 18 followed by “ Something Rotten,” Aug. 28-Oct. 20 and “Oliver” Oct 30-Dec. 29, 2019. “Shrek the Musical” (children’s show) Oct. 5-Dec 30 and concludes with “Holiday Inn” Nov. 7-Jan. 6.
Marriott’s shows for young audiences feature “Junie B. Jones,” now through Aug. 11 and “Madagascar: A Musical Adventure” Oct. 4-Dec. 29.
For tickets and other information call (847) 634-0200 and visit Marriott Theatre.
Metropolis Performing Arts Center
The Center, at 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, is currently doing “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” through Aug. 31, then “Anything Goes” Sept. 19-Nov. 2., 2019. The new year begins with “Noises Off” Jan 20-Mar. 14, followed by “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” May 14-June 27 and “Mama Mia! July 16 -Aug. 29.
The theatre is in the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. Skokie
Northlight is doing the Midwest premiere of “Mother of the Maid” Sept. 12-Oct. 20 and the world premiere of “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” Nov.7-Dec. 15, 2019. The season continues in the new year with the world premiere of “How a Boy Falls” Jan. 23-Mar. 1 followed by “Intimate Apparel” Mar. 12-Apr. 19 and “Songs for Nobodies” May 7-June 14. 2020.
For tickets and other information call (847) 673-6300 and visit Northlight.
A theatre workshop/school at 927 Noyes St., Evanston, that also presents productions in co-operation with other groups. The Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre presents“The Black Ballerina” in partnership with Piven, Dear Evanston and Dance Center Evanston, Aug. 10-25.
For Piven tickets and other information call (947) 866-8049 and visit Piven Theatre.
The theatre is in a small, historic, movie theater building at 7924 Lincoln Ave., Skokie
Skokie Theatre is doing “The Fantasticks” Sept. 6-Oct. 6 followed by “Marjorie Prime: Nov. 8-24, 2019. The season continues in 2020 with “Veronica’s Room” Feb. 7-Mar. 1.
For tickets and other information call (847) 677-7761 and visit Skokie Theatre.
Designed by architect Jeanne Gang and her Studio Gang, WT has two stages in an award-winning building at 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe; The Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre and the The Gillian Theatre.
The 2019-20 season opens with “Into the Woods” Aug. 14-Sept. 22, followed by “A Doll’s House” Sept. 25-Dec. 15, 2019. :The Niceties” is Nov. 6-Dec. 15. It continues in 2020 with “Stick Fly” Feb. 5-Mar. 15. and “The Last Match” Mar. 18-June 7. And “Mementos Mori” ay 6-June 14. .
For tickets and other information call (847) 242-6000 and visit Writers Theatre.
Drury Lane Theatre
The theatre is at the Drury Lane Resort, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace.
Drury Lane Theatre continues “And then There Were None” through Aug. 26 then is doing “The Color Purple” Sept. 13-Nov. 3. 2019 goes into 2020 with Mary Poppins” Nov. 15 –Jan. 19. “An American in Paris” is on stage Jan. 31-Mar. 29.
The theatre uses the rooms and grounds of the Mayslake Peabody Estate at 1717 W. 31st St. Oak Brook.
First Folio is doing “Henry V” through Aug. 18. Then, “Sherlock’s Last Case” Oct. 2-Nov. 3, 2019. Shows continue in 2020 with “Jeeves Saves the Day” Jan. 29-Mar.1 followed by “Louisa May Alcott’s Little women.” Mar. 25-Apr. 26.
Fir tickets and other information call(630) 986-8067 and visit First Folio.
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center
The Center at 3801 S. Central Ave., Cicero., is doing “In the Heights” with Vision Latino Theatre Company, fall of 2019. Dates TBA. For tickets and other information call (708) 656-1800 and visit Jpac Theatre.
Madison Street Theatre
The theatre, at 1010 Madison St. Oak Park, is a multi-venue building. For information call (312) 282-1750 and visit MSTOakPark.
Oak Park Festival Theater
The theater, 157 Forest Ave., has is doing “Much Ado About Nothing” through Aug. 31. Followed by “The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story” Oct. 24-Nov. 17, 2019.
The theatre is in a historic movie palace at 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
Paramount is doing “Newsies” Sept. 4-Oct. 20, then “Beauty and the Beast” Nov. 13-Jan. 19, followed by “The Secret of My Success” Feb. 12-Mar. 29. “Kinky Boots” ends the season Apr. 29-June 14.
For tickets and other information call (630) 896-6666 and visit Paramount Aurora.
Sixteenth Street Theatre
The theatre, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn, is doing “His Shadow” Sept. 5-Oct. 12, 2019 and “Small Jokes About Monsters” Jan. 10-Feb. 16, then, “Good Enough” Mar. 14-Apr. 20, 2020. For tickets and other information call (708) 795-6704 and visit 16th Street Theater.
Theatre of Western Springs
The theatre is at 4383 Hampton Ave., Western Springs.
It is doing “Murder in the Studio” Sept. 5-15 followed by “Accomplice” Oct. 17-27. The new year starts with “The Nerd” Hab, 16-26. Then, “The Great Gatsby” is Feb. 27-Mar. 8 and “TheGame’s Afoot” May 28-June 7.
“Next to Normal” brilliantly and unerringly brings to the stage what life is like in a home where a family member is mentally ill.
Penned by Brian Yorkey who also did the lyrics and with music by Tom Kitt, the show took three Tony awards in 2009. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama because even though it has highly expressive musical numbers, it is not a feel-good musical.
“Next to Normal” is a heart-wrenching drama about a husband who keeps trying to help his wife combat what has been diagnosed as bi-polar depression triggered by the death of their young son early in their marriage and about their teenage daughter who no matter how successful she is in school, can’t get the attention she deserves and craves.
During the course of “A Number” at Writers Theatre, Glencoe, a father admits he was an awful parent the first time around as his sons try to extract the full story of their existence.
It’s sort-of a two person play with stage veteran, actor/director Nate Burger (Writers Theatre, Americanh Players Theatre, Timeline) as the father, Salter, and popular Chicago actor Nate Burger (Chicago Shakespeare, Timeline, Goodman) as Bernard, his sons, 1, 2 and 3.
The play is only 65 minutes long but its high intensity acting and twists made it feel as if I sat through two hours of a suspenseful drama.
Eerie music and lighting enhance Robin Witt’s spot-on direction of clipped responses from the father in contrast to the emotions of Salter’s original and cloned sons.
Yes the show, written by Caryl Churchill back in 2002 when copying mammals’ DNA and genetic make-up was in the news, is about cloning. It’s also about examining uniqueness, identity, upbringing, abandonment and truth.
Salter, who felt he was not a good father the first time around, wanted to try again from scratch. He had scientists clone his first son so he could be a better father the second time.
What happens on how the son and clones react will be a surprise therefore there will not be an alert here. You have to go to find out.
But a word of warning. Don’t believe most of what Salter says. The real story emerges from the mist of his twisted mind in bits and pieces.
DETAILS:”A Number” is in the Gillian Theatre of Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court Glencoe through June 9, 2019. Running Time: 65 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and other information call 847) 242-6000 and visit Writers Theatre.
To see August Wilson’s plays is to look through a window on the life and times of black Americans, to feel their frustrations, challenges and desires, not just in one period, but in 10 decades of the 20th century. To witness actors tell those stories is to hear Wilson’s ear for the cadence and poetry of language.
In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” now at Writers theatre through March 17, 2019, we visit a Chicago of the1920’s when white record producers were turning to black music they called “race music” because it sold well.
The play is the only one of Wilson’s “Century Cycle” to be set in Chicago. The others, such as “Radio Golf” (1990’s) done by Court Theatre last year and “Two Trains Running” (1960s) that appeared at Goodman Theatre in 2015, took place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
The incomparable Felicia P. Fields (Tony nominated for “Color Purple”) is terrific as a feisty Ma Rainey who really was a popular blues singer. Her rendition of “Black Bottom” is great and I would have liked to her sing more.
But this play is about the thoughts, experiences and desires of her black band members and how white record producer Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox) and Rainey’s manager, Irvin (Pete Moore), behave before, during and after the taping.
While waiting for Rainey, who turned out to be delayed by a difficult traffic confrontation and bad cab experience, her quartet, hot-headed trumpeter Levee (Kelvin Roston Jr.), philosophical pianist Toledo (David Alan Anderson), easy-going bassist/backup vocal “Slow Drag,” (A.C. Smith) and band leader/trombonist Cutler (Alfred H. Wilson), tell stories and debate ideas during rehearsal.
After a couple of problems including Sturdyvant finally letting Levee know that the trumpet player’s songs will not be optioned, Levee erupts, and the play has a tragic ending.
However, directed by Ron OJ Parson, the band members present the perfect ensemble to tell Wilson’s story. Todd Rosenthal’s backdrop of a former church turned recording studio sets the right period tone. Using the front of the stage as the downstairs rehearsal room is genius because it brings the audience close to the band members.
Other cast members are Dussie Mae( Tiffany Renee Johnson) as Ma Rainey’s likely lover, Sylvester, (Jalen Gilbert) as Rainey’s stuttering nephew and policeman (Blake Montgomery) who brought Ma and her retinue to the recording studio after the traffic confrontation.
DETAILS: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is at Writers Theatre, 325Tudor Court, Glencoe, through March 17, 2019. Running time: 2 hrs, 30 min. with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (847) 242-6000 or visit Writers Theatre.