Review: 'Immediate Family' and more in Chicago

June 15, 2012
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By accident rather than design, the first three plays of my current Chicago theater jag (where I’m participating in the American Theatre Critics Association conference) focused on (and, in two cases, were created primarily by) African-Americans.

And while the results were mixed, collectively, they provide glimpses into places largely missing from Indianapolis stages.

That isn’t to say that our established theaters don’t make efforts in that direction (and occasionally, as with the IRT’s “Radio Golf” last season, deliver). But we won’t be a serious theater city until there’s more diversity in our offerings led by creators of color. An occasional August Wilson play is wonderful, but there’s a lot more to be mined.

In Chicago, I started with “Immediate Family,” a new comedy/drama by actor-turned-playwright Paul Oakley.

The marquis name for this independent production (renting space at the Goodman Theatre through Aug. 5) is Phylicia Rashad, who isn’t performing but directing.

You’ve no doubt seen variations on the plot before. A family wedding brings adult siblings back home and secrets are revealed as skeletons emerge. Here, eldest brother Jesse—who hasn’t come out to his family—brings along his partner, hoping to pass him off as just a friend willing to photograph the nuptials. As much conflict arises from the fact that Christian is white as they do with the no-one-is-really-surprised revelation that Jesse is gay.

Plot details aside, the production's strength comes from an ensemble so comfortable (when they aren’t truthfully uncomfortable) with each other. They feel like a family and glances between them seem filled with shared experience. Oakley skillfully brings the past to our attention without the feel of obvious exposition. Each character has secrets to reveal, but those feel organic. Oakley, abetted by powerfully present actress Shanesia Davis, even finds the sympathetic core in the play’s primary oppositional force, sister Evy.

Rashad and her cast are particularly adept at scenes of family chaos and conflict—particular in a tense seen over a game of cards. Their arguments feel like arguments, unlike many a theatrical verbal battle where actors seem to be taking turns when chaotic energy should prevail.

Yet for a play where arguments are plentiful and laughter raucous, the ending is a quiet one. There’s no group hug. But there is satisfaction.

I was less enamored with “My Kind of Town,” a world premiere by journalist John Conroy that focuses on police brutality in Chicago. Specifically, it’s about a drug dealer and tire thief who may or may not have committed an arson and double homicide that landed him on death row—crimes he confessed to after being tortured by those sworn to protect and to serve.

It’s an ambitious production in an intimate space. But the attempt to come at the story from multiple perspectives only serves to deaden the impact of the crimes and the people impacted by them. It wasn’t until into the second act that I felt like anything new or even interesting was being explored—when the accused’s stand-by-your-son mother admits that, after years in prison, she thinks that all may be better off with him staying there.

It doesn’t help that the performances run the gamut from solid to sporadically believable to straight-out-of-a-50s-instructional-film.

“My Kind of Town” runs through July 21 at Timeline Theatre, which is dedicated to presenting stories “inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues”

I followed “My Kind of Town” with something completely different: “The Marvin Gaye Story: Don’t Talk About My Father, Because God is My Friend” at Black Ensemble Theatre.

The company, founded in 1976, has a sparkling new home, which contains a theater perfectly suited for the kinds of musical biographies that are its bread and butter. Stylistically, this one is “Jersey Boys” without the polish, sleek stagecraft, or unified vision. The show isn’t shy about Gaye’s womanizing, drug abuse, and surly personality and is even less shy about slapping on an unearned redemption ending that crosses the border into condescension.

The redemption for the show comes in its songs, which are performed by the musically talented company (and hot on-stage band, including horn section). If the only goal was to make clear why Gaye continued to be appealing even as his behavior became deplorable, then the production was successful.

If only as much attention had gone to the cliché-filled book writing as went into the musical numbers. Writer—and company artistic director—Jackie Taylor calls these plays her “McDonalds hamburger” shows. They are products, created by formula.

That attitude may well keep the doors open. But it didn’t keep me from alternating between hand-clapping and eye-rolling.






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