Samuel G. Roberson Jr., artistic of Chicago's Congo Square Theatre, and a busy actor, educator, and activist on Windy City stages, died last week at the age of 34.
How to encapsulate the life of Sam Roberson Jr. adequately when he was taken from us in mid-sentence? How can we possibly express the love and passion that so many in the Chicago theatre community felt toward Sam in 800 or so words? And how can we talk about Sam’s life in art without addressing directly the existence of systemic racism which inspired and motivated so much of the miracle that surrounded his very existence?
Actually, it’s nearly impossible.
Every time we sat down to write we would digress into conversations about the lack of opportunities for artists of color or Black Lives Matter or the challenges of bringing audiences of color into our theatres—and, specifically in Tyrone’s case, the challenges of being an artistic director of color.
What we have tried to do here then is present you with a collection of voices. Theatre is not a solo art, so we assembled a cast by writing to some of his closest friends and colleagues, and we asked them to share some words about Sam. And to give character and plot that might evoke the idea of Sam, we created a dialogue out of their words. Hopefully it will serve for you (as it has for us) as an inspiring call to action.
To set the scene: Sam was born and raised in California. When he was eight he was diagnosed with childhood leukemia. By all reports he should not have survived. But Sam was special. Sam had an indefatigable spirit and passion to live, love, and succeed. He might have been the smallest player on the football field as a child, but his heart was that of a giant. Through a miraculous cure, Sam survived leukemia and made it into adulthood—where, bursting with the need to tell his story, he gravitated toward theatre.
Sam graduated with a degree in theatre arts from Howard University and took an apprenticeship with the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, where he ended up staying for three years developing his theatrical aesthetic as an actor, a director, and an activist for social justice through his art.
He moved to Chicago in 2008 where he began work as an actor, appearing at the Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf, and Victory Gardens, among others. That year he was also diagnosed with congestive heart failure—an unpoetic irony, given the largeness of his all-embracing heart. In 2014 Sam was invited to be artistic director of the Congo Square Theatre, where he enjoyed many programming successes, including Twisted Melodies (a piece he created with Kelvin Roston Jr. about the life of Donny Hathaway), the world premiere of A Small Oak Tree Runs by Lekethia Dalcoe directed by Harry Lennix, and the Chicago premiere of Pearl Cleage’s What I Learned in Paris. He also created an education and outreach initiative with a company called Y-BOOM (Young Brothers Owning Our Mission), a literacy-based leadership program providing a safe environment for adolescent African-American men.
In 2016 it became clear that Sam needed a new heart and a new kidney, and that summer he received both. In the months that followed he fought valiantly to reenter his former life, and at moments it seemed as though he would succeed. But on Sunday May 21, Sam merged into the great artistic continuum with his passing.
Sam’s traditional biographical accomplishments as an artistic director barely scratch the surface of his emotional and spiritual accomplishments as a member of the great Chicago metropolitan area theatre community and beyond.
The scene set, read the words of his friends and colleagues:
Ron OJ Parson: Often I have thought how I would have been able to deal with the obstacles he faced, and I can honestly say I don’t know if I could.
Aaron Todd Douglas: Sam never took his opportunities for granted. Sam was blessed, and he squeezed a rich lifetime into to his 34 years because he understood that no one is owed a single thing in this life, not even tomorrow.
Tyrone Phillips: Sam was a child of God who dedicated his life to theatre and was determined to change the world through his acting, directing, and educating. We shared many passions, one of them being the role of artistic director. There are not many artistic directors of color in Chicago (or in the nation for that matter).
Chay Yew: Sam and I met frequently and shared experiences as artistic directors. Okay, we gossiped a lot.
E. Faye Butler: He was always eager to find solutions that educated everyone in the room. The calm listening ear—not just hearing you but listening to your point of view. Wanting to understand how you arrive at your position and where the happy medium lie.
Chay Yew: But in all our conversations, he passionately championed black theatre and black theatre artists in Chicago, and fought for equity and inclusion on every level in our community.
E. Faye Butler: I will miss our conversations on the state of life for disenfranchised artists in the American theatre. How do we introduce the conversation in a calm, productive manner? How can we better tell our stories?
Alexis Roston: Samuel G. Roberson Jr. was unapologetically black, unashamedly gifted, and unrelenting in his boldness—a fearless young man with a voracious will to change the face of theatre in Chicago, concerned with diversifying an institution that undoubtedly needed a new mindset regarding how people of color are viewed, showcased, and storybooked. His mantra—conceive, believe, achieve—fueled his drive to bring about a change by any means necessary. Militant? Most certainly! His destiny was too great for him to compromise it for any reason, so he never took no for an answer. “No” to Sam meant “we’ll discuss it.” He led by example: Don’t talk about it. Be about it!
Tyrone Phillips: One of my last conversations with Sam was at the Goodman Theatre, as we both were on a panel for the League of Chicago Theatres that was focused on diversity in our industry. He made me laugh many times during the evening with how direct and articulate he was with every answer he gave.
Chay Yew: In Sam I saw a better version of myself and the hope of our field’s next generation of leaders. I miss his sense of humor, his courage, his unwavering optimism, but mostly I miss his remarkable light.
Lydia Diamond: I am hopeful that we can all live up to the high bar Sam has set for letting one’s art, politics, and passion for life work in perfect synchronicity—that we might have made not only beautiful, if fleeting, works of art, but also that we might have made a difference. Certainly, our friend and colleague Sam did.
E. Faye Butler: He was a young man with an old soul and wisdom far beyond his years. He will be a welcome disciple in the great beyond, there is no doubt in in my mind.
Kelvin Roston: “What’s the point?” These three words, words from Samuel G. Roberson that, among many others, ring in my ears, my mind, my soul. They can easily be incorrectly interpreted. One could assume you mean, “May as well give up. Why even try?” Not Sam, however. When he said it he meant, “What’s the real meaning? How can we go deeper? Strip away the extras, what are you saying?” Sam lived his life that way. What’s the point? We need to show our worth. What’s the point? We need to live on purpose. We need to create a safe space. Start hard conversations. Keep the ancestors alive.
Alexis Roston: He was also a team player, willing to “yes and” for the greater good of a cause; a good man of noble character willing to fight for you because he knew how. Sam had been a fighter his entire life span, defying the odds time and time again.
Ron OJ Parson: Of course we all know him for his talent and intelligence and ability to multitask life and work, but how many of us know the fine athletic ability he possessed? I directed Sam in Samuel J. and K., and we needed an actor who could play basketball. Little did I know this little guy could dunk a basketball! (Of course we had to lower the rim a bit.) Both Mat Smart (the author) and I were amazed at his skill with the basketball. That led to me recruiting him for our theatre-league softball team, and he immediately displaced me at second base. I remember telling him, “Hey man, it’s just a theatre league.” He replied, “Hey man, I only know how to play one way, and that’s to win.” The way he lived life. One way. To win.
Kelvin Roston: Sam once said to me that because he could have been gone a long time ago, he had no time for excuses. Everybody is going to tell you why it can’t be done. Why it shouldn’t be done. Some of those closest to you. But Sam did it. You tell him, “You can’t,” he says, “I will.”
Ashley Roberson: But to say that my husband was a fighter doesn’t quite encompass who he was. I say he was a liver. It was his greatest joy to live each day to the fullest, and he did so with a passion and a purpose. In the midst of the many health issues and complications that he experienced over the years he had the audacity to not only live for himself, but to live for others.
Nicole Ripley: Sam gave an incredible gift to the civic life of Chicago as a teaching artist and educator, particularly through his unwavering commitment to the students at Urban Prep Academy, who he always kept front of mind. Sam had unparalleled passion for, belief in, and commitment to the young people he served. He saw and nurtured the potential in each student and encouraged them to do the same.
Ann Douglas: Sam recognized the fundamental value of theatre and used theatre to transform lives, turning hopelessness into hope and inspiring those around him into action. Armed with an intoxicating smile, Sam’s gifts inspired us to conceive anything possible, believe in our abilities to make it so and achieve the unattainable. A selfless man who wanted nothing more than to be a part of the solution, Sam worked tirelessly to insure the voices of our youth, disenfranchised, and misunderstood were heard.
Ashley Roberson: My greatest wish, and I know Sam would agree, is that anyone who was inspired or touched by his work, anyone who had the opportunity to work by his side, to continue fighting the many fights he was so passionate about. That people become more conscious about sharing their light with others and giving freely to those who are passionate about creating art that does not only entertain, and to those who understand that art is about changing lives for the better.
Tyrone Phillips: What I loved most about Sam was that our conversations contained new ideas and action items every single time. I’ve come to learn that a company’s vibrancy is dependent upon the creative spirit and well-being of its artistic leaders, and it shows in the important work that Sam did with Congo Square. Under his leadership the company reached new heights and presented a true reflection of the challenging world we are living in while also inspiring the next generation to dream bigger.
Ron OJ Parson: I was looking forward to seeing what the future held for all the many projects and ideas we talked about.
E. Faye Butler: He truly understood that life is not a dress rehearsal. Do it now!
Alexis Roston: He was never a coward in the face of adversity but was always up for the challenge.
Tyrone Phillips: There is an army of artists and creators who promise to pick up your torch, and we will never let your light dim.
Ashley Roberson: He never feared that his light might become dimmer in the sharing of it, and it is clear that in its sharing, it never flickered or waned but instead it grew. I believe his light became a flame that will not easily be extinguished despite his passing.
Nicole Ripley: Being his colleague has been the utmost privilege.
Sam Roberson: It’s about the heart and the breath we breathe into our work. My heart is a little bigger than most and my breath is a little more labored than others. I work with passion, I speak with passion, I create with a passion, because my breath I don’t take for granted. I know that the next one isn’t promised, so every breath I take I might as well use it.
Cast list, in order of appearance:
Michael Halberstam, artistic director and founder of Writers Theatre
Tyrone Phillips: artistic director and founder of Definition Theatre Company
Ron OJ Parson: director, actor, dispenser of wisdom and experience
Aaron Todd Douglas: actor, director, writer, Congo Square company member
Chay Yew: artistic director of Victory Gardens, director, writer, innovator
Ashley Roberson: Actor, poet, life bringer, wife of the deceased
E. Faye Butler: Legendary actor, singer, star (in the sky and on the stage)
Alexis Roston: actor, provocateur, mother
Lydia Diamond: writer of astonishing depth, former actor
Kelvin Roston: actor, writer, singer, creator, anchor
Nicole Ripley: professional educator and game changer
Ann Douglass: fierce actor, poet, Congo Square company member
Sam Roberson: Everyman