Each month, Chicago editor Jerald Raymond Pierce offers insight into regional coverage coming out of American Theatre’s Chicago branch, as well as other goings on around the city.
“Chicago is definitely a theatre town,” James Monroe Iglehart said to me earlier this month as we sat in the upper lobby area of Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre to talk about his starring role in a Broadway-aimed staging of A Wonderful World. “Chicago’s not looking at us like, ‘Thank you for honoring us with your presence.’ No, Chicago’s like, ‘What’re you going to do? Show us something, because we know what good theatre is.’”
Iglehart plays Louis Armstrong in the new biographical musical, conceived by Christopher Renshaw (who also directs the production) and novelist Andrew Delaplaine, with an original book by Aurin Squire. The show, which closed its Chicago run yesterday, has its eyes on New York, as you might expect, with Vanessa Williams signed on as a producer. Chicago is the show’s third stop, following a Miami New Drama premiere with a different cast and, most recently, an Iglehart-led stint in New Orleans, to pay homage to Armstrong’s own origins.
In talking to Iglehart the afternoon before the show’s press performance, Chicago seemed the steepest test yet for the new show. Though the musical features iconic music from Armstrong’s legendary career, as you might expect, the show attempts to buck the traditional biographical musical form by aiming to tell the story of his life by uplifting the voices of four wives he had in cities around the country during different periods of his life. Squire and Renshaw described it to me as the four seasons of his life, spanning the four major cities of his career: New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.
This concept, and their desire to take the story of Armstrong and use it to highlight the women in his life, seemed fascinating to me. Even before seeing the show, I wondered how this precarious balance could be struck, between uplifting the Black women in Armstrong’s life, showing how they played key roles in his growth and career, but still making the show fundamentally about Armstrong himself. As you can read in any number of the Chicago reviews, that balance wasn’t quite there yet, not least because it’s a tall task for anyone or any book to match the shine of Iglehart onstage.
That’s one thing I love about living in Chicago: seeing these shows that aren’t there yet but have lofty goals. I remember seeing Big Fish in Chicago during its pre-Broadway stint two or three times, watching it change every single time. I remember watching Paradise Square here too, wondering what would become of that show’s book and telling anyone who’d listen that, if nothing else, Joaquina Kalukango deserved to blow audiences away in that show on Broadway (she ended up winning the Tony). And those are just the shows that play on the official Broadway in Chicago circuit, not one of the many others that start on our regional stages and go on to acclaim elsewhere. Sure, I know Chicago isn’t the only city that attracts Broadway hopefuls aiming for a real tryout in front of discerning audiences. But as Iglehart spoke about bringing this show through Chicago, I found myself swelling with pride at Chicago’s earned reputation as a crucial stop on the way to New York. These may be platitudes, but there’s truth in them.
“Chicago knows who Chicago is,” Iglehart continued. “They know that the best theatre comes from here. They’re, ‘We’ve sent shows to Broadway before, so you ain’t shocking us.’ I think that’s what’s great about it, because we need that. There’s moments where you need those nice people pushing you forward, and you also need those people going, ‘Okay, if you’re going to go forward, then we’re going to be the ones to tell you what you need to fix.’”
Speaking of listening to Chicago about what needs fixing, let me point you to a piece of recent reporting from Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel and Elsa Hiltner. In their latest piece, they lift the efforts of small and midsize Chicago theatres and respond to the onslaught of op-eds focusing more on what’s wrong with the industry than highlighting companies that are finding innovative ways forward. Another path forward: Gabriela reported on the Destinos festival, Chicago Latino Theater Alliance’s vibrant annual festival, and on the high-flying, immersive LUCHA TEOTL, which ran at the Goodman as one of Destinos’ offerings.
Unfortunately, our reporting can’t only uplift the good. Amanda Finn reported on the sticky situation Chicago storefront theatres are finding themselves in, as the pandemic recovery has led various multi-venue spaces, previously havens for itinerant companies, either to close their doors or shift their focus, leaving smaller theatres looking to grow with fewer and fewer affordable options.
Finally, turning our eyes up to Minneapolis, Crystal Paul reported on the world premiere of Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, an adaptation from playwright juliany taveras, as it ran at Children’s Theatre Company. Paul dives into this story, the opposition faced by the source children’s book, by Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant, and the inspiration this tale of Morris and his fiery dress has generated.
As you read through these stories and the news below, that quiet thudding you hear echoing in the back of your mind is me thumping my chest with Chicago pride. This city isn’t perfect, as no city is, but it’s hard not to stand a bit taller as we cover the progress being made by Chicago’s dedicated artists and companies, so that even for stars like Iglehart, Chicago’s reputation as a theatre-savvy town continues to precede it.
“I’m honored to be here so Chicago can give us that education,” Iglehart said. “When Chicago tells us what the deal is, I’m going to take those notes. I know what we need to do. I know what gets to stay, and we all definitely know what needs to go.”
Now See This
I don’t want to waste this opportunity to show one of the songs from A Wonderful World, which you’ll find below. You can also find more coverage of A Wonderful World with these articles from Lloyd Sachs in the Sun-Times and Chris Jones in the Tribune. Here’s “When You’re Smiling,” featuring a beaming Iglehart as Armstrong and choreography from Rickey Tripp and DeWitt Fleming Jr.
Gabriela catches us up on a few items you may have missed:
In anticipation of cold November, I’m holding space for warmth and care. As that translates to our local theatre scene, we can hear powerful stories as the city uplifts Native American Heritage Month and new strategies for disability justice at Seesaw’s Inclusive Theatre Festival. Here’s a look at other news happening around Chicago:
- Earlier this month, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and SMU DataArts released a new report on financial and operating trends in Chicago’s arts and culture sector. In the wake of that report, organizations and leaders around the city have responded. The Reader’s Kerry Reid and Sun-Times’ Stefano Esposito and Miriam Di Nunzio dive into some of the fallout, including meetings between Mayor Brandon Johnson, the League of Chicago Theaters, World Business Chicago, Choose Chicago, and DCASE and the new marketing effort to declare it “theatre season” in Chicago, encouraging patrons to head out and see live theatre.
- In another piece from the Sun-Times, Neil Steinberg reflects on individual responsibility in healing the arts sector and shifting habits.
- Goodman Theatre’s The Who’s Tommy has been officially slated for Broadway this spring at the Nederlander Theatre.
- Steppenwolf co-artistic director Audrey Francis sat down with Chicago Magazine’s Kris Vire ahead of Steppenwolf’s Francis-directed production of POTUS, sharing insight into her vision for the company and how this production plays a role. “I love having these artists onstage who are athletic and fierce and irreverent and funny and don’t give a fuck about making an ass out of themselves,” she told the magazine.
- In a role “on par” with his “zany, brilliant, and unique portrayals,” as Selena Fragassi put it for the Chicago Sun-Times, John Malkovich is touring in The Music Critic, which stopped in Chicago for one night only. This revue of baroque composers is set to Malkovich’s oratory of critics’ biting commentary, offering a fascinating look at the relationship between art-making and cultural criticism.
- Earlier this month, the Jeff Awards saw the Goodman and Teatro Vista take home several honors for productions of The Who’s Tommy, The Dream King, The Cherry Orchard, and Swing State. Notable awardees also included Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s Motherhouse, Court Theatre’s The Gospel at Colonus, and American Blues Theater’s Fences.
- The Jeff Awards also announced multidisciplinary artists Satya Chávez and Terry Guest as the inaugural recipients of the Jeff Impact Fellowships. The fellowships, which include $10,000 gifts, go to support the growth of two early- to mid-career artists of color in the Chicagoland area.
- Raven Theatre Company announced Adrianna Desier Durantt as its new managing director. Durantt joins Sarah Slight, who took over as Raven’s artistic director in July 2023.
- Darcel Rockett shared a prophetic portrait of immersive theatre experience As Much As I Can in the Tribune. In the article, Rockett notes that Harley & Co. company manager Darius Brown said, “a Johns Hopkins University evaluation showed a greater commitment from audience members to stand up for people living with HIV and LGBTQ+ communities after seeing the work.”
- For the Chicago Reader, Kerry Reid takes a dive into the city’s rat shows, particularly highlighting Redline VR’s Rat City and Annoyance’s once-per-month Sunday service Rat Mass. Reid writes, “veterans of the local sketch and stand-up comedy scenes aim to challenge the negative stereotypes of rattus” who especially populate our urban areas.
Every month, Jerald and Gabriela check in with Chicago/Midwest theatre artists about what’s getting them out of bed in the morning and keeping them up at night. This fall, we’re focused on keeping our spirits up. More below from Myesha-Tiara, founder and artistic director of Perceptions Theatre.
What is a theatre company or artistic leader you admire, who you feel is pushing the field in a promising direction?
Myesha-Tiara: Congo Square is one of the first places that come to mind. They are a Black Equity theatre that is not only doing the work to make sure Black artists are getting work but they are big on community engagement for their shows as well, tying community with theatre in a way I find smart and creative. We at Perceptions Theatre are always striving to find new ways to connect with our community and seeing Congo do it with theirs lets us know we are going in the right direction. They also use different forms of media to appeal to their audiences on every level, which is a very important part of community engagement and meeting your audiences where they are and not only expecting to see them at the theatre. They actually go out into the community, and that is what every theatre should strive for.
What was the moment you knew you wanted to go into theatre?
Myesha-Tiara: The heat. It’s a funny answer but true. I’m from Baton Rouge, La., and most of the year we have humid heat that can definitely smack you in the face. At 5 years old at my after-school program, I had the option to go into the heat and play basketball or go under the cool a/c and read a play. Well, I chose the play, because it was a word I’d never even heard of before—and the a/c. The rest was history. Learning that I could go into a world completely different from my own where I wasn’t automatically judged on what I looked like made me want to do this career for the rest of my life. I’ve definitely had highs and lows, and I’m sure more challenges and successes are to come but I wouldn’t trade this world of make believe for anything, because there is a little Black girl in Louisiana right now, maybe even Baton Rouge, who is looking up to me and saying to herself, “I can do that to!”
What is your favorite fall activity?
Myesha-Tiara: Curling up with a good book and drinking a cup of tea while sitting by a window watching the leaves fall will always be one of my favorite fall activities.
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