CHICAGO: Two pieces of music figure prominently and poignantly in Steve James’ 2014 documentary on the late film critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself, based on Ebert’s 2011 memoirs of the same title. At one point, Ebert and his wife, Chaz Ebert, recall listening to Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” after one of Roger’s numerous surgeries. (He had a years-long struggle with head and neck cancer.)
The two credited that song with saving his life: By playing it through in the hospital, rather than waiting to listen to it on the way home, they were in the room with doctors who acted quickly when he suddenly suffered an arterial hemorrhage. “If that song had been shorter, I would be dead,” Ebert noted (communicating through a software program that turned his typed words into speech).
Then, near the end of the film, Chaz recalls putting on Dave Brubeck’s jazz masterpiece “Take Five” during the last minutes of Roger’s life on April 4, 2013.
Both Ebert’s book and James’s film present the Ebert marriage as a love song, and one that found its voice later in life. Chaz and Roger married in 1992, when Ebert was 50 and Chaz (formerly Chaz Hammelsmith) was divorced with children. As he wrote, “She saved me from the fate of living out my life alone.” That love will soon take the stage at Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater’s The Black White Love Play, written and directed by Black Ensemble’s founder and CEO, Jackie Taylor. The show begins performances on Sept. 26 and runs through Nov. 15.
On one level, the tribute is a kind of repayment of a personal debt.
“Roger and Chaz were great supporters of the Black Ensemble Theater,” Taylor says. “They came to the productions all the time.” (Indeed, it was not unusual to see the busy couple out at live theatre in the Windy City, even as Roger’s health began to fail him—including a trip to the storefront Factory Theater’s 2007 comedy Siskel and Ebert Save Chicago.)
It’s a bit of a departure for Black Ensemble, which has made its mark with musical biographies of black performers (including Jackie Wilson, Etta James, and Howlin’ Wolf) and uplifting shows focusing on particular genres of music—from 1960s girl groups to this past summer’s Men of Soul, celebrating artists such as Bill Withers, James Brown, and Ray Charles.
But when Chaz agreed to participate in Black Ensemble’s 2014 fundraiser, “Soul of a Powerful Woman,” Taylor talked to her about creating a show celebrating her relationship with Roger. “I was saying how Roger’s philosophy would make a good play because it blended so well with the mission of Black Ensemble Theater,” Taylor explains. “I asked her, ‘Why don’t I do some research, Chaz? Would you mind?’ And she said, ‘No, I don’t mind at all. Roger loved the theatre and loved your work and would be very happy to have something based on that [relationship] onstage.’” So, though Taylor wrote the script, she gave final approval to Chaz.
Black Ensemble’s mission statement reads, in part, “to eradicate racism and its damaging effects upon our society through the utilization of theatre arts.” That does seem in synch with Roger Ebert’s view of the social impact of film. In a speech included in the documentary, he describes movies as “a machine that generates empathy.” Movies can only go so far, of course: By the accounts of many friends and colleagues included in the documentary, Roger, a highly competitive man who grew up an only child, grew more empathetic once he had Chaz and her family in his life.
To tell the story, Taylor settled on the idea of a Greek-style chorus. “For me, it’s a social statement,” she says. “That’s what I wanted this play to be. I wanted it to be a social event. So it just was natural to me to pick the style of having a chorus to tell the story and then the two main characters onstage.”
That chorus will also deliver a mix of favorite songs of Chaz and Roger, as well as some originals by Taylor. “They liked everything,” she says. “Opera, rock, blues, gospel, rhythm & blues.”
The chorus won’t be the only ones singing. Kevin Pollack, who plays Roger (he previously played both Joe Cocker and Billy Joel in Men of Soul), and Rashada Dawn, who plays Chaz, also get their chance to croon. Says Taylor, “People are going to be very surprised, because Chaz and Roger sing in this production. And that actually came out of the fact that they sang all the time—they just didn’t sing in public.”
Of course, the most obvious element—the one referenced in the title—is that Roger Ebert was white and Chaz is African American. In the documentary, Chaz, who had a successful career as a trial lawyer before her marriage, reflects on her early activism in civil rights issues and admits, “People who knew me then would have been very surprised I married a white man.”
In his book, Ebert, who grew up in the college town of Urbana, Ill.—home, along with neighboring Champaign, to the flagship campus of the University of Illinois—wrote of his upbringing, “Racism was ingrained in daily life. It wasn’t the overtness of the South, but more like the pervading background against which we lived.”
Though Taylor didn’t know the Eberts well before creating the show, she observes that the marriage survived because both Chaz and Roger knew “the type of love that they had. Understanding the kind of relationship that they had, they had to love outside of [themselves]. They both were givers.”
Films gave Roger his professional voice, even after cancer took away his literal ability to speak, and Chaz honors and extends that legacy through her role as head of the Ebert Company, which publishes the film criticism and journalism site RogerEbert.com, among other enterprises. Yet when asked how film itself figures into The Black White Play, Taylor says simply, “It doesn’t. It never entered my mind. It wasn’t about the films at all. His life for me was about his relationship with Chaz and how that relationship flourished and how they loved each other through it all.”
Kerry Reid writes about Chicago theatre and is a regular contributor to this magazine.