jakub | December 30, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Adventuring Through Chicago’s Holiday Offerings

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.

There was a brief moment about two weeks ago when I thought to myself: You know what—what if I saw every holiday-themed show in Chicago this year?

If I’m completely honest, I’ve never been super high on holiday shows. I didn’t grow up going to a beloved version of A Christmas Carol (through no fault of my hometown theatre, Indiana Repertory Theatre) or The Nutcracker or anything like that. It’s not that I never enjoyed these holiday offerings; I’ve even written about my enjoyable holiday outings to the Goodman, American Blues Theater, and Strawdog Theatre for the Tribune in recent years.

Adrianna Desier Durantt. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

But when someone asked me what they should go see when they were in Chicago for the holidays next month, I was at a loss. Somewhere in the back of my head sat a thought that came up during a recent conversation with Raven Theatre Company’s new managing director Adrianna Desier Durantt. When asked about the challenges still facing theatres, part of her response touched on building risk tolerance. How do we convey to those outside of the industry (and inside, sometimes) the value of theatre even if a particular production doesn’t wind up being great? As I thought through my limited knowledge of holiday offerings, they all felt, well, risk-averse.

That’s not to say there’s not enormous value in our annual holiday show traditions, both monetarily for theatres and emotionally for die-hards. But I feel I should be able to offer something more than, “Well, there’s A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, and Hershel & the Hanukkah Goblins”—staples that are likely already on most folks’ lists. Where’s the adventure in that?

Thus was my idea to see every holiday-themed show in the Chicagoland area was born. It quickly died, however, as I scrolled through Theatre in Chicago’s listings, tallying no less than 36 holiday-themed shows. As I write this shortly after Thanksgiving, that feels like more of an undertaking than I anticipated. While my dreams of knowing holiday shows like the back of my hand, thus being able to offer a perfectly exciting recommendation for any taste, fizzled, I was so inspired, honestly, to see the variety of stories Chicago’s theatre audiences have at their disposal. I wonder if folks truly realize just how many options there are.

I won’t run down the whole list of shows for you, because we’d be here all day. Instead, I bring this up to suggest that, this holiday season, you take a look around at what your local theatres are offering if you haven’t in a while. Of course, you can still go see that production of It’s a Wonderful Life that you love, but maybe you’ll also look around and find a show that will become a new annual tradition. You don’t have to see everything your city is producing (the idea of 36 shows in a month still sends shivers down my spine), but it’s such a wonderful time to branch out and share a new experience with your family or friends, or just with yourself. So often, taking that chance is well worth the risk.

Behind-the-scenes during Joe Mazza's pre-production shoot of FEN at Court Theatre. (Photo by Jeff Sant.)
Behind-the-scenes during Joe Mazza’s pre-production shoot of FEN at Court Theatre. (Photo by Jeff Sant.)

Before I veer too far afield, there are some wonderful articles I’d love to share in addition to my chat with Durantt. First, there’s Gabriela’s profile of Chicago photographer Joe Mazza. The vibrancy of Mazza’s photography is well-known in the local theatre community, and this article peeks behind the lens at this surprisingly psychological role.

“It is the most delicate process,” Mazza told Gabriela. “It’s like going to a confessional.”

I also want to point you to two articles from Chicago-based writers that were published as part of TCG’s THRIVE! Uplifting Theatres of Color program. The six-story series, edited and curated by Regina Victor and Jose Solís, include bylines from this year’s Rising Leaders of Color cohort as well. First, Madie Doppelt took a look at the inventive local work of National Black Theatre, Hattiloo Theatre, and Chicago’s Teatro Vista. Next, Tina El Gamal wrote about the work of Silk Road Rising here in Chicago, as well as Pangea World Theater and Penumbra Theatre in the Twin Cities, and about how beneficial unrestricted funding can be for the important work of these theatres. You can keep an eye on all the stories from that series by heading to this link.

As we barrel into the holidays, a season of connection and giving, I hope you find time to take in some new theatre alongside your tied-and-trues. After all, a lot of times in this industry, as Durantt told me, “It’s just a matter of creating a community willing to take the risk of it being bad, frankly, but maybe changing your life.” Here’s to a holiday season that could change your life.

Now See This

A new Broadway-hopeful musical is taking the stage in Chicago, starring Jasmine Amy Rogers. Boop! The Betty Boop Musical, which runs in Chicago through Dec. 24, features a book by Bob Martin, music by David Foster, and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. The Tribune’s Chris Jones went behind the scenes to talk to director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell, Rogers, and more about Betty Boop’s adventure in modern-day New York City. For an early look at a song from the show, check out this clip of Rogers performing “Where I Wanna Be” on top of the Wrigley Building on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.

Around Town

Gabriela catches us up on a few items you may have missed:

With gratitude for our medium’s power of meaningful in-person communication, I bring you November’s round-up, which includes several pieces of promising news for theatre in the Midwest, as well as some tinged with mourning. May we hold one another going into the holiday season and lean into our communities.

  • For Block Club Chicago, Gwen Ihnat goes behind the scenes of director Tyrone Phillips’s Caribbean-set Twelfth Night, which has been heating up Chicago Shakespeare with its extended run, eliciting more “full-on belly-laughing” from audiences of all ages as Phillips pays tribute to his Jamaican American heritage.
  • Black Ensemble Theater held the Black Arts & Culture Alliance of Chicago’s 23rd Annual Black Excellence Awards on Nov. 6 in “a total celebration of all things art and culture—a feast for the eyes, ears, and soul,” as Tacuma Roebuck reports for the Chicago Defender.
  • For the Reader, Kerry Reid’s moving in memoriam weaves together many voices to celebrate the too-short life of Linsey Falls. Known for “his malleable voice and physical presence,” this central figure in the Chicago storefront theatre scene brought together countless people and loved to make them laugh.
  • In a preview for the Reader, Dilpreet Raju covers the story behind John Michael’s limited-run solo show Spank Bank Time Machine, described as “providing a space that is glaringly absent, one where audience members can interact with him about collective loss (from overdose)” through laughter. 
  • In her Ghost Light column, the Reader’s Reid looks back at American Blues Theater’s history as the company opens a new permanent home, which adds a 137-seat theatre and a 40-seat studio space to Chicago’s storefront community.
  • The Chicago Sun-Times’s Mary Houlihan gives us an inside look at TV special-inspired, “warmhearted” Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, bringing delightful puppet and human performers to the Studebaker Theater through Dec. 31.
  • All around the country on Nov. 6, ENOUGH!: Plays to End Gun Violence brought student voices to professional stages. Diving into the Goodman’s participation, Courtney Keepers for the Sun-Times writes, “This year’s works, selected from 244 entries nationwide by a panel of dramatists, range in subject matter from surviving a school shooting to police violence to how 911 operators respond to calls for help.”
  • In a Sun-Times article on Schurz High School’s improv program for neurodivergent teens, Stefano Esposito shares, “Recently, the school librarian pulled Vasicek (recent program grad and now-volunteer) aside. Her son is in the club. The librarian told Vasicek he and his friends are having a ‘great impact on the kids.’”
  • With a $5 million gift from a local couple, Milwaukee Repertory looks ahead to its theatre renovation and expansion project with renewed energy. Jim Higgins for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that “planned upgrades for the studio include modernized restrooms, an acoustical barrier between the performance space and the lobby, gathering spaces, and a functioning bar.”
  • There’s exciting news from Indianapolis, where a new professional Black Equity theatre in residence at the District Theatre has announced the hire of its first artistic director, Ben Rose, who has a 20-year career in the city’s art scene. The new company will operate with its own board but receive financial resources, in-kind services, and use of venue from the District Theatre at no cost for four years. This new company is now the second Black Equity theatre in town, following the founding earlier this year of Naptown African American Theatre Collective (NAATC).
  • Writing for CityBeat, Katie Griffith shares a preview of the world premiere of Fiona: The Musical, written by Zina Camblin, with music and lyrics by David Kisor, which tells the incredible tale of the Cincinnati Zoo’s famous resident, the smallest Nile hippo to ever survive. On the show, staged at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati through Dec. 29, Griffith writes, “Viewers are in for a treat when it comes to visuals.”

Chicago Chisme

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 Felicia Oduh, a playwright and actor who recently appeared in the Goodman’s production of The Nacirema Society, as well as Zina Camblin, playwright behind the world premiere musical Fiona: The Musical at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, which also features music and lyrics from David Kisor.

Felicia Oduh (Photo by Obinna Onyeka—OBIOPHOTOS) and Zina Camblin (courtesy of Zina Camblin).

What is a theatre company or artistic leader you admire, who you feel is pushing the field in a promising direction?

Felicia: Definition Theatre is bringing top-notch theatre and BIPOC business mentorship to Chicago’s South Side. At the beginning of the year I had the chance to work on their world premiere of Alaiyo, by Micah Ariel Watson, and I enjoyed one of the most fulfilling artistic experiences I’ve had since graduating. They’ve got great things on the horizon at Definition and I’m excited to watch them take off!

Zina: Being from Cincinnati, as a kid I remember going on field trips and seeing Ensemble Theatre when it was in what, at that time, was considered “the hood.” We were escorted by police just to walk near the theatre. Downtown Cincy at that time was far from the hip place to be like it is today. No trendy restaurants and bars, no trolley car—it was drug-ridden and impoverished, and [producing artistic director] D. Lynn Myers was given the impossible task of creating and maintaining a theatre space that would showcase local talent, bring diverse programming, and sustain season after season at a venue where no one wanted to venture downtown to see a play. And she did just that. Lynn made a way where there was seemingly no way, which is an attribute in any artist who follows their dreams and doesn’t give up that I resonate with. Ensemble Theatre has an incredible staff that also has an impossible is nothing mindset, and an incredibly talented base of Cincinnati actors who are some of the best I have ever seen. They are an underdog in the regional theatre community but do groundbreaking theatre no matter the cost.

What was the moment you knew you wanted to go into theatre?

Felicia: I don’t know that there was one specific moment I knew I wanted to go into theatre. I grew up watching tons of TV and reading as many books as I could carry, so I’ve always wanted to tell stories—but primarily on screen and on paper. I majored in theatre because that’s where most of the acting training was at my school and I just knew I wanted to be an actor. But through that theatre training, I learned what an electric and sacred and grueling and rewarding full-body experience this art form can be, and I knew I had to keep doing it.

Zina: When I was 8 years old my parents took me to audition for the School for Creative and Performing Arts. They noticed my propensity for making up skits and performing them when they had friends over for dinner. I would cast the neighborhood kids in short comedic scenes to entertain my parents and their friends. I guess my parents figured I should do something with my imagination, and so I auditioned and got in. The first play I was ever in there was The Music Man. I was cast as “town’s child number eight.” I had one line, where I yelled, “Clearlake!” Every time I yelled the line, I made some goofy face and it got a laugh. I guess I was bitten by the performing bug at that moment.

As far as the playwriting bug, however, my parents took me to see the play, From the Mississippi Delta, at Cincy Playhouse when I was 13. It was a more adult-themed autobiographical play chronicling the life and accomplishments of a powerful Black woman in the Civil Rights Movement. It was the first time I saw three Black actresses onstage, each playing a variety of different characters and roles to tell the singular story of one woman’s life journey. It blew my mind as a young Black girl, and I knew I wanted to tell unique stories like those theatrically.

What is your favorite fall activity?

Felicia: Well, I’m a summer baby. So once I’ve finally gotten over my denial that summer has ended, I’m always happy to snuggle under a blanket, rub my feet together, and watch a good show with my radiator hissing at the top of her lungs in the background.

Zina: My favorite fall activity is procuring my favorite hot beverage—a piping hot soy chai—and going for a long walk to look at all the trees with their leaves turning various brilliant shades of fall colors. Then…I cozy up on my couch and watch the Cincinnati Bengals play! WHO-dey!

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