Homecoming: A Powerful Pair of Revivals Prove Chicago a Mecca for Black Theater

Photo: Brett Beiner (Drury Lane Theatre)

There was palpable energy in the theater on the opening night of Drury Lane Theatre’s revival of The Color Purple—and a hallelujah chorus of shouts and co-signs from the audience, no doubt a rarity in the predominantly white suburb of Chicago known as Oakbrook Terrace. But the black theatrical community was out in force to support director Lili-Anne Brown, her all-black direction team, and some of the city’s most recognizable talents as they put their own spin on the Tony-winning musical, led by cast members Eben K. Logan (Celie), Sydney Charles (Shug Avery) and Nicole Michelle Haskins (captivating in every scene she appeared as the feisty Sophia).

“It was a whole bunch of black girl magic; it was pretty awesome,” Brown told The Root, listing the myriad challenges—including illness and an injury—her all-black, 19-member cast navigated in the days leading up to their stellar opening night. Proving the old theater adage that a bad dress rehearsal makes for a great opening, no obstacle seemed to impede the ensemble’s soaring voices and stylish footwork, conducted by Musical Director Jermaine Hill and choreographed by Breon Arzell.

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Brown has been a fixture in the Chicago theater scene for over 20 years, first as an actor and now as a director; recently at the helm of the Goodman Theatre’s production of Ike Holter’s Lottery Day, and previously artistic director of the acclaimed but now-defunct Bailiwick Repertory Theatre. The Color Purple marks a new milestone for Brown as the first musical she’s directed at a major for-profit theater, following a successful 2017 revival of The Wiz for Kokandy Productions at Chicago’s nonprofit theatre hub, Theater Wit. As she shared, it was also an opportunity to showcase some of the city’s best black talents, many of whom she’s “shared the air” with for years in Chicago’s long-thriving theater scene.

“For me, this particular production at this time, in this place, it’s very, very personal, because it’s a bit of a benchmark of how we’ve all grown,” said Brown. “And to be offered The Color Purple at a time when I feel very capable of tackling it on this level, as well as some of my favorite actors that I’ve worked with or been fans of—being like, ‘Oh my God, I’m being offered this right when this person is the perfect age or at the perfect time in their career...or just how they’ve grown, this is now the perfect role for them.’ And we’ve all sort of grown together, where that feels really beautiful.”

Director Lili-Anne Brown, center (in black) with the cast and crew of The Color Purple at Drury Lane Theatre on September 19, 2019.
Photo: Adam Blaszkiewicz (Drury Lane Theatre)

“Too beautiful for words” was the consensus of The Color Purple’s opening night audience, many of whom are also members of the local black theatrical scene, comprising a mutual admiration society that travels from show to show in support of each other, from storefronts to well-known houses like the Steppenwolf.

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“People are genuinely rooting for each other and supportive in a way that it’s hard in like, say, New York, to get that kind of community built,” New York-based actor Jon Michael Hill, an Illinois native, memorably told us while co-starring in the Steppenwolf’s groundbreaking revival of True West this summer. “But here, we all go see each other’s stuff...I am a part of something really special here.”

Hill is right; in fact, there’s been an entire book written on the history of black theater in the “Second City.” No wonder fellow Steppenwolf ensemble member and Oscar-winner Tarell Alvin McRaney called Chicago an “artistic home base” when speaking to The Root in May.

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“There is like, a legacy of black theater here in Chicago that has deep roots and hasn’t gone anywhere,” McRaney told us. “The important thing about that to me is that you will witness folks who may not work together often, but will show up. They will show up and show out.”

Brown echoed the above sentiments, telling us, “There are many of us that have grown together; and as somebody that’s been trying to put black people on stage and tell our stories for some time, you sort of grow [into] a bit of a family, as it were.”

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Family—chosen and real—is a theme shared by both The Color Purple and August Wilson’s King Hedley II, another Chicago revival currently in production, directed by Resident Artist Ron OJ Parson. Parson is another revered presence in Chicago’s theatrical circles (and beyond), and there was a similar outpouring of support on press night, as more of the city’s theater lovers and performers converged upon the Court Theatre on the campus of the University of Chicago to see the ninth of Wilson’s ten-play cycle spanning 100 years of black life in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Kelvin Roster, Jr, center, as Hedley; Ronald L. Conner, left, as Mister; A.C. Smith as Elmore.
Photo: Michael Brosilow (Court Theatre)
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Aside from both including characters named “Mister,” like The Color Purple, King Hedley II is not only a study on how families are formed and broken, but a multi-generational reckoning with toxic masculinity and its repercussions. In the titular role, Kelvin Roster, Jr.’s performance is, by turns, cocky, brutish, desperate, frustrated, irrational—and yet, Hedley is always trying to better himself, hopeful that he can somehow leave his mark upon a world seemingly determined to keep him under its thumb.

But like The Color Purple, it is the women who truly hold us in their thrall in the Court’s production. As a rule, Wilson’s female characters were neither as plentiful nor typically as well-developed as his men (Rose from Fences and Gem of the Ocean’s Aunt Ester notwithstanding). But despite being supporting characters, Hedley’s wife, Tonya (Kierra Bunch), and mother, Ruby (TayLar) are the nuanced core and catalyst of this narrative—and while unseen, even the oracle-like Aunt Ester is once again a pivotal presence in Wilson’s narrative.

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As Tonya, Bunch delivers one of the most searing monologues seen on a Chicago stage this season. And Taylar’s Ruby is simultaneously sassy and sympathetic as a woman grasping at both a second chance at love and a second chance with her estranged—and endangered—son. Each actress deftly demonstrates the female pain that often becomes collateral damage in the choices of the men they love—and vice versa.

Kierra Bunch, left, as Tonya; Kelvin Roston, Jr. as Hedley; TayLar as Ruby.
Photo: Michael Brosilow (The Court Theatre)
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What is most striking about King Hedley II and The Color Purple is how relevant both of these plays remain, decades after their genesis. The themes, both of which deal heavily with black trauma, require a sensitivity to the subject matter, said Brown (Parson was unable to be interviewed for this article, as he is currently rehearsing Wilson’s Fences in Montgomery, Ala.).

“[W]e know us like no one does, and so we have an understanding of the source material that is deeply personal and deeply joyous, and also profound,” said Brown. “There’s a reverence...there’s an ownership that I think makes a difference...And I think when you have a lot of black people in a room being asked to recreate, particularly, black trauma, who’s asking is really important and makes a huge difference. So, all of that is part of what we bring to the table...it’s little things and big things.”

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As Brown also shared, it’s also no little thing for a black woman to be invited to direct at a commercial theater like Drury Lane; particularly when many other commercial venues are notorious for their closed ranks. Recalling recent conversations about her potential as a director, Brown shared:

“I had two major artistic directors of major theaters tell me separately in separate conversations that basically, it was very unlikely that I would ever get to develop a new Broadway-bound musical—and they thought they were being helpful in telling me that.

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“And when I asked them why they would say that—in 2019—they said, ‘Well, it’s because of the money,’ she continued. “When we start thinking about where’s the money coming from, who’s in charge of it and how do they feel about you...there’s a really interesting dynamic that happens in musical theater. It wasn’t about not having faith in myself; I just didn’t have anybody to look at and say, ‘Well that person did it; that black woman’s doing musicals all over the country, or on Broadway, or whatever...These people are comfortable—in 2019—looking in my face and telling me they don’t see it.”

It’s no small coincidence, then, that Brown would be handpicked to tell the story of a black woman who thrives against the odds in a world that loves to tell black women what we can’t do. And as she shifts the paradigm for herself, Brown hopes to contribute to a new chapter in a longstanding black theatrical tradition in her hometown.

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“I hope people really feel the love—like the real deep, deep love that is in this production, from every corner,” she said. “Everyone is so invested, and there’s a bit of that extra mile here. Because when something brand new is happening that is a coup for black people, we all feel amazing about that...we all feel lifted.”

The Color Purple is in production at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. through Nov. 3; tickets are available on their website. King Hedley II will run at the Court Theatre In Chicago through Oct. 13; tickets are available here.

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.