Monday, February 19, 2018

Together as One: Copious Characterizations by Dionne Addis Power Gripping 'Liberty City' at Fleetwood-Jourdain -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Liberty City
by April Yvette Thompson
directed by Jonathan Wilson
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
Noyes Cultural Arts Center
Through February 24
Free admission

One of the things I love most about theater is the way it can shock you.

I don't mean--in this case--being surprised by plot twists in a particular play, or having your jaw dropped open by imaginative originality or astonishing talent in a musical.

What I'm referencing is the life-enhancing experience of being absolutely floored out of the blue.

Over the past month, I've seen 8 non-musical plays.

Presented by several of the most esteemed theaters in the Chicago area--Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Court, Northlight, Writers--these have included classic works (All My Sons, A Moon for the Misbegotten), a recent Tony Award winner (The Humans) and other dramas crafted by acclaimed writers and directors (You Got Older, Breach, Skeleton Crew, Blind Date).

Most I attended via Press Night invitations, with a palpable air of excitement accompanying first-rate casts (often including familiar faces), impressive set designs and large crowds.

And as you can read via my hyperlinked reviews, to varying extents I liked almost all of them.

On Saturday night, I attended a played called Liberty City, which I had only learned about on Thursday, via a Facebook post by the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre.

FJT focuses on works reflecting the African-American experience, and in recent years I've seen and enjoyed several of their shows.

In commemoration of Black History Month, Fleetwood-Jourdain is organizing a number of programs throughout February, with Liberty City being just one of them.

The 90-minute play was written by April Yvette Thompson--a name unfamiliar to me--who seems to have initially performed it solo, off-Broadway, in 2008.

At FJT, it is running for just 3 performances, the last coming up this Saturday evening. Under the direction of Jonathan Wilson, the stage is adorned with simply a table and chair. Starring as April--and essentially chronicling the experiences of the author--is a young actress I haven't knowingly seen before, named Dionne Addis.

Beyond the three people with me, I don't think there were more than 15 patrons in the theater.

And Liberty City wound up providing the best piece--and performance--of dramatic theater I've yet experienced in 2018. 

This isn't to say that it's a better play than Arthur Miller's All My Sons; that's one of the best ever and Court Theatre did a nice job with it.

But whereas I found that production a tad imperfect, Liberty City was awesome for being so surprisingly terrific.

Particularly as Addis gives a tour de force performance, vocally characterizing at least 10 different people, rotating through accents deftly enough to alleviate any confusion.

With young April, a resident of Miami's diverse Liberty City, serving as the core narrator, Addis embodies her along with her mother, father, grandmother (dubbed Aunt Caroline), aunt, brother, teacher, hairdresser and more.

April's father Saul is a Black Power activist and city councilman, so along with chronicling family matters and school interactions, the memoir-like narrative has a racial justice bent, culminating in a rather harrowing episode all the more resonant due to contemporary parallels.

Fleetwood-Jourdain Artistic Director Tim Rhoze with
Liberty City star Dionne Addis and director Jonathan Wilson
Much of April's recollections are quite gripping, including the means by which her dad tried to teach her about slavery, and the descent of a beloved relative into addiction, but there are also several humorous moments and some fun shout-outs to Earth, Wind and Fire.

Generally speaking, individually-performed plays don't grab me quite like those with full casts, but it bespeaks Thompson's script, Addis' performance and Wilson's direction that Liberty City was finely-paced to not just hold my attention, but truly keep me riveted.

I doubt my review will bring the masses to the Noyes Cultural Arts Center this Saturday for the final, free performance of Liberty City by Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, but it's a shame you don't have more opportunities to catch it.

Yes, FJT Artistic Director Tim Rhoze ruminated about giving the play one of the troupe's standard summer slots in upcoming seasons, but even that would likely only be for 6 performances.

So if it's possible to catch the CTA Purple Line to Noyes, or just drive there--free parking is available in a dedicated lot--I strongly suggest you do.

By virtue of having read my rave review, you may not be quite as surprised as I was.

But you should be just as captivated.

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