Category: Congo Square
Beautiful to Behold
|Congo Square Theatre presents|
|Written by McKinley Johnson
Inspired by Langston Hughes
Directed by Aaron Todd Douglas
at Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Dec 31 | tickets: $30-$40 | more info
Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins
I have been going to the theater in Chicago for over 40 years and Black-themed productions have a special place in my heart since I first witnessed Purlie Victorious! at what was the Monroe Theater in 1969. The power of seeing and hearing the old traditions, colloquialisms, and gospel or blues tinged singing remains with me. This year, I wasn’t feeling the so-called Christmas Spirit in full. The commercials started before I could plow through my Halloween stash of candy and make the turkey sandwiches from Thanksgiving. Thank goodness I got my hallelujah infusion from Congo Square’s production of The Nativity.
This musical and dance extravaganza is written by McKinley Johnson and inspired by one of my favorite writers: Langston Hughes. The plot is the traditional Nativity story of the Visitation from the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and the adventures that ensued in the birthing of the man known as Jesus.
The Black Nativity, which inspired this work, is one of the sacred plays written by Langston Hughes in the late 40’s and early 50’s as the Harlem Renaissance gave way to a stronger Civil Rights Movement in America. The Black theater had always been a strong presence due to segregation and discrimination. Hughes was always unabashed in his support and pride for Black traditions in music, poetry, and other art forms. Director Aaron Todd Douglas, Musical Director Jaret Williams and Choreographer Kevin Iega Jeff have built a beautiful monument on the foundations laid by Hughes and McKinley.
The combination of dance and spoken word make for a powerful and emotional tribute. Dancers Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark portray the characters of Mary and Joseph. They never speak but project power, emotion and pain with dance. Ms. Turner is a wonder to watch as she portrays the birth pains, terror and exhaustion of travel on the run. If I had not been sitting so close I would wonder if she was held up or manipulated by invisible cords. Her beautiful and expressive face shows innocence, giddy youthful love, fear, and finally a maternal glow. She and Mr. Clark play perfectly off of each other as a couple in love.
Pierre Clark is an amazing high school senior who has perfected the role of Joseph. He emotes the youthful lust and royal bearing befitting a descendant of King Solomon. His acting is wonderful and the protection and joy of fatherhood is beautifully played through his dance moves. The choreography is reminiscent of Capoeira dancing – a blend of dance and martial arts that was forbidden during the slave trade in Colonial Brazil. It is a stunning and innovative take on choreography in a sacred work.
The cast of singing actors in The Nativity is from the ranks of Chicago’s finest actors. John Steven Crowley commands the stage as the Angel Gabriel and the narrator of the story. Alexis Rogers and Jeniel Smith shine as Athaliah and Johashobah. They are best friends at the washing creek and wives the fearsome King Herod. They have some funny and contemporary lines that ring true in modern society as well as ancient times.
Black Ensemble Theater regular, Kelvin Roston Jr., joins Ms. Rogers and Ms. Smith. Mr. Roston brings his handsome and convivial charm to the roles of Tax Collector, Inn Keeper, and Centurion. It is always a pleasure to see him perform.
Dwelvan David is a standout as King Herod. Mr. David’s striking features and imposing projection give him a perfect balance of fierce warrior, cunning politician, and comic foil.
The singing in this play is exceptional and pure gospel. The selections by Jaret Williams are soul-rousing and seemingly tailored to the singing talents of the cast. The moment the piano played I felt that I was ‘back in the day’. A special mention of Melody Betts and Dawn Bless is warranted for their roles of Mother of Mary and Elizabeth. They each have wonderful solos and shine in the roles of mother, confidant, and protectors of the Virgin Mary. Two other highlights are the song and dance combination of ‘Her Way’s Cloudy’ and the appearance of the Three Kings. The costumes are perfection in the choice of fabric and tailoring. (I was really close to the stage). The song ‘You Ought To Try The Lord’ is rocking, as is the ‘get happy in church’ dance by Jon Pierce.
I recommend The Black Nativity as a holiday tradition for everyone no matter your race or religious tradition. It’s perfect for the whole family and as an introduction to musical theater for younger children. Kudos to all of the parents in the audience as this was one of the best intergenerational audiences I have had the pleasure to be in. Happiest of Holidays to Everyone!
The Tribune’s Chris Jones announces Top 10 Plays of 2009
10. Stud Terkel’s Not Working – Second City e.t.c.
Chris Jones’ list of 10 shows that “should have made the list”
Desire Under the Elms – Goodman Theatre
Little Foxes – Shattered Globe Theatre
Miss Saigon – Drury Lane Oakbrook
Old Glory – Writers’ Theatre
Our Lady of the Underpass – Teatro Vista Theatre
Rock ‘n’ Roll – Goodman Theatre
Twelfth Night – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Marriott Theatre
Blossoming with music, Court’s ‘Piano Lesson’ mixes family tensions and struggles with a dash of the paranormal.
The Piano Lesson
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
Watching Court Theatre’s production of “The Piano Lesson,” by August Wilson, I couldn’t help comparing it to “The Cherry Orchard.”, by Anton Chekov. Although the play is distinctively American, elements in the Pulitzer Prize-winner are very similar to Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece. Set in 1936, characters descended from slaves attempt to move up in the world as the sons of plantation owners join the ranks of the rural poor; Wilson’s Boy Willie is sort of a black Lopakhin. Directed by Wilson veteran Ron OJ Parson, the Court’s “Piano Lesson” is a very effective snapshot of the American experience, with a tantalizing ghost story weaved in.
Along with “Wait Until Dark,” this is the second production in the Court’s season that has features of a thriller flick. The fourth entry in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” but the fifth to be written, “The Piano Lesson” records family tension and the African-American struggle in the 20th Century with a dash of the paranormal.
Like most of the cycle, the central conflict pits progressing in the modern world against reverence for the past. This conflict is symbolized by a beautiful piano that has a haunting presence around it. The piano is inherited to siblings Boy Willie (the lively Ronald L. Conner) and Berneice (Tyla Abercrumbie), with the former wishing to sell it to buy land and the latter fighting to keep the ancestral instrument. It is slowly revealed that piano has cost a lot of blood over its lifetime, and a few of the deceased may have followed the piano to Berneice’s home in Pittsburgh.
Although no one actually teaches a piano lesson, the production blossoms with music. Mournful jazz numbers are played by musician Wining Boy (Alfred H. Wilson), and Boy Willie lays down a short dancehall tune. One of the best scenes of the play is when nearly all of the male characters join together in a powerful, rhythmic work song. Just like the piano, the music is a child of the characters’ heritage, offering them (and the audience) an escape, a celebration, and a shared experience. The songs are brilliantly scripted and nailed by this talented cast, tapping deep into the underlying themes.
The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Conner is an energetic and stubborn Boy Willie, bristling with youthful drive. He’s grounded by his friend Lymon, played by a charismatic Brian Weddington. The older generation in the play, Alfred H. Wilson’s funny Wining Boy and A.C. Smith as the peacekeeping Doaker, add a deeper level of humanity to the play and present a welcome break from Boy Willie’s and Berneice’s constant bickering.
The fighting between the siblings is where the production falters. The battle quickly stalemates and the repeated arguments loose focus. Abercrumbie’s cold portrayal of Berneice doesn’t help, either. It seems like the production wants the play to be Berneice’s story, but Conner’s Boy Willie is much more interesting and sympathetic. Another stumbling block for the play is the character of Grace (Alexis J. Rogers), Boy Willie’s and Lymon’s 10-second love interest that doesn’t seem to have much of a point for the story.
Parson’s interpretation of the script, though, is layered and gives credence to both sides of the conflict. The realistic heart of the play, the music, and the campfire ghost story aspects are all well-realized. Keith Pitts’ set is intricate and allows for plenty of play for the actors. The physical presence of the paranormal is fascinatingly done, and the titular piano is elaborately detailed. The ghosts are far from a hokey gimmick. The invisible characters that encroach on the family’s struggle illuminate Wilson’s themes of family, tradition, and connection to the past.
Cast List and Creative Team – after the fold…
THE BIRD SANCTUARY – the side project
THE COUCH – Cornservatory
GHOSTWRITTEN – Goodman Theatre
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH – American Theater Company
HOW CAN YOU RUN WITH A SHELL ON YOUR BACK? – Northwestern University Theatre
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH – Paramount Theatre
PUMPGIRL – A Red Orchid Theatre
THE ROCKS – the side project
SATELLITES – Gorilla Tango Theatre
STOREFRONT THEATER MUSICAL – Cornservatory
WHITE JAZZ – Annoyance Theatre
WINK WINK, SKYPE SKYPE – Gorilla Tango Theatre
Show Closings – don’t miss out!
THE CHANGELING – Caffeine Theatre
THE GATHERING – Improv Playhouse
IDIOT TANGO – Annoyance Theatre
MODIGLIANI – The Artistic Home
RENT – Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre
SAINT JAMES INFIRMARY – Congo Square Theatre
TALLGRASS GOTHIC – Caffeine Theatre
WATER – Gorilla Tango Theatre
Seeing how much Target contributes to the local arts scene, I promise (for Lent?) to do more of my shopping there. For example, check out Target’s 2-for-1 ticket deals at Congo Square, Steppenwolf, and Lookingglass Theatre, as well as $20 Sundays at Goodman.
Jonas Brothers skit on Saturday Night Live
Sears Tower photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune.
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