Thanks to theatre’s immediacy and infinite possibilities, essentially every theatrical experience is special in some way. But occasionally an exceptional combination of playwright, play, cast, artistic crew, and audience creates an unparalleled experience. Often these unique experiences are heightened by the context in which they occur, whether that involves current societal challenges, or a spreading shared conviction that decades or even centuries of business-as-usual are no longer acceptable. And these extraordinary theatrical experiences always involve distinctive ways of telling a fascinating and enlightening story. They make us laugh, learn about life experiences unlike our own, and look at life differently than we did before.
(in alphabetical order)
BLKS by Aziza Barnes, produced by Steppenwolf in 2017: Seeing BLKS is like being a fly-on-the-wall in the lives of three young black women, based on the playwright and her friends. We’d had many theatrical opportunities to observe real-life characters dealing with a range of challenges, but this play was the first to focus specifically on a close-knit trio of women who are black and (mostly) gay. It was real-time and realistic, but with poetic language and sensibilities (no surprise, since the playwright is a poet, but still striking in their beauty and pervasiveness). The perfect cast, inventively directed by Nataki Garrett, made us laugh until we cried and revel in the women’s indomitable and communal spirit in the face of constraints society has placed on them, simply by virtue of who they are. We loved the characters that we met during this play, and we miss them.
Charm by Philip Dawkins, produced by Northlight Theatre in 2015: Around 2012, Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones read a newspaper article about Gloria Allen‘s work at the Center on Halsted, and contacted playwright Philip Dawkins to suggest that her story might make an interesting play. Our first experience with Charm was a reading produced by Northlight Theatre (fittingly at the Center on Halsted) in early 2015. Jones assembled an exceptional cast, with Andre DeShields playing Mama. Our reaction at the end of the reading was that we absolutely loved the play, but how could anyone produce it without Andre DeShields in the lead role? Just a few months later, our question was answered, when we saw Northlight’s full production, again under the direction of Jones, with Dexter Zollicoffer playing Mama. He totally inhabited the role and led an ideal ensemble cast in fully capturing this remarkable story. Interesting note: We were subsequently introduced to Gloria Allen at another Philip Dawkins play. As soon as she entered the room, we instinctively guessed who she was because of her striking grace and presence. It was an honor to meet her.
Into the Beautiful North by Karen Zacarías, adapted from the novel by Luis Alberto Urrea, produced by 16th Street Theater in 2017: With a plot inspired by the film The Magnificent Seven (which in turn is based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai), you figure that containing Into the Beautiful North on any stage—much less the intimate basement location of 16th Street Theater—would be a pipe dream at best. Co-directors Ann Filmer and Miguel Nuñez assembled the ideal cast and crew (including scenic designer Joanna Iwanicka and lighting designer Cat Wilson) to produce a show that was cinematic in scope. The lead character’s search for seven good men to protect her Mexican village takes her and her comrades to Tijuana, San Diego, Kankakee, and other points north. We experience their train rides, border crossings, and the range of good, bad, and ugly treatment from the people they encounter along the way. The play’s ingenious combination of humor, idealism, thorny realities, and underlying serious themes is ultimately a glorious celebration of the human spirit.
The Light by Loy Webb, produced by New Colony in 2018: Before seeing New Colony’s world premiere of The Light, we had seen more than three thousand shows; but we had never seen anything like this play. Here was a story about two young, intelligent, funny, professional people of color deeply in love—all too rare on any stage, sadly. In its fully engrossing 90 minutes of running time, the play ranged from clever comedy to devastating denouement, grappling with a range of timely, weighty, and interrelated issues with a remarkable level of complexity and clarity, always through a personal and relatable lens. Everything about the issues in this play, the humor, the characters, and the emotions we experienced as audience members was multi-dimensional. The instant the play ended, the audience leapt to their feet en masse, applauding, weeping, and taking a collective deep breath. The play was a masterpiece, the performances by Jeffery Freelon and Tiffany Oglesby were breathtaking, and Toma Langston’s direction was exquisite. Theatre simply doesn’t get any more powerful than this.
Music Hall by Jean-Luc Lagarce, translated by Joseph Long, produced by TUTA Theatre Chicago in 2015: TUTA’s production of this poetic, charming, humorous, and poignant play appeared first at The Den Theatre and then moved to 59E59 in New York. The play tells the story of a once renowned Josephine Baker-esque “artiste,” clinging to a fading elegance and waning dignity while on tour in the decidedly downhill phase of her career. The narrative is told with grace and gentle humor by the two supporting performers in the artiste’s act. In director Zeljko Djukic’s brilliant staging, a simple set with a mirrored wall, a sliding curtain, a ladder, and a stool represented backstage and on-stage settings for a succession of one-night stands farther and farther from the the artiste’s ideal. The music, movement, inventive use of props and set, and the unfailing subtlety and sensitivity of the director and actors made this unique production unbeatable in our eyes.
An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a modern riff on Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama The Octoroon, produced by Definition Theatre Company in 2017: All the plays we’ve seen by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate, Gloria, and An Octoroon) include aspects that shock and discomfit, but An Octoroon juxtaposes those elements with hilarious scenes about horrific subjects. Starting with a self-referential framing device in which a black playwright (named BJJ) recounts advice from his therapist, the play then reenacts portions of Boucicault’s The Octoroon, retaining his characters and dialogue, acted in nineteenth-century melodramatic style. The outrageously exaggerated and uproarious treatment of this story about slavery and racism is interrupted by an unforgettable jolt of brutal reality. The pitch-perfect ensemble cast, led by Breon Arzell and directed by Chuck Smith, grabbed the material with both hands and delivered both the humor and horror to maximum effect. The experience for us as audience members was unlike any other, and certainly illustrated one of the playwright’s quotes in a 2014 interview published by American Theatre: “If you cannot feel angry or upset or, like, scandalized or grossed out or bored in the theatre, where else are you supposed to feel safe to do that?” Interesting note: Yale professor James Leverett wrote a wide-ranging essay entitled “An Octoroon: The Octoroon” on the occasion of An Octoroon’s 2014 world premiere at Soho Rep. It provides social and historical context for Boucicault’s play (which premiered in New York a couple of days after John Brown was hanged in Harpers Ferry, Virginia).
Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu, a re-imagining of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, produced by Steppenwolf in 2017: One of theatre’s greatest gifts is enabling audience members to figuratively walk in someone else’s shoes—especially if the character’s life experience is significantly different from your own. What made Steppenwolf’s 2017 production of Pass Over unquestionably unique was the visceral sense it conveyed of what it’s like to be unsure of your personal safety at literally every moment of every day, and to be unable to count on institutions supposedly established to protect you. Pass Over gave us 80 minutes to experience vicariously that combination of facing imminent danger and having no societal backstop between you and disaster. This play still affects our outlook and actions to this day. Among the many reviews of Pass Over that we read, the ones that we felt best captured the feel and import of the play were written by two remarkable young actresses: Ireon Roach (just before entering college) and Liv Shine (who had just finished her freshman year in college). Ireon’s review and Liv’s review were both published on the Chicago Inclusion Project’s website.