Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Not to Be Missed: Sharp Satire, Powerful Messages Entirely Present in 'Day of Absence' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Day of Absence
a classic play by Douglas Turner Ward
directed by Anthony Irons
Congo Square Theatre Co.
at Victory Gardens Biograph, Chicago
Thru March 22

A friend of mine has frequently surmised about the potential efficacy of "avoidance strikes" to protest various injustices.

What if--abetted by the ability of social media to spread the word to millions or even billions of people--everyone of a like mind agreed not to purchase gas on a given Monday or use a credit card for any purchases on a given Friday.

Might corporations and politicians take notice? Isn't it possible to imagine change could occur in response?

Day of Absence--a bitingly satirical play written by Douglas Turner Ward, first performed in New York in 1965 and now being staged in a re-imagined production by Chicago's erstwhile Congo Square Theater--powerfully posits how an organized disappearance by people of color might counter and combat racial prejudice.

Photo credit on all: Jazmyne Fountain
Within the upstairs Richard Christiansen Theater at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, the show--with tweaks to make it feel contemporary, such as the inclusion of mobile phones--is set in an unnamed southern town.

With each of the black and Hispanic actors strikingly adorned in whiteface, Day of Absence begins with a pair of mall workers (played by Ronald L. Conner and Kelvin Rolston Jr.) slowly coming to realize that no dark-skinned people have shown up to work, or to shop.

At their home, an affluent couple (Jordan Arredondo, Meagan Dilworth) sleeping off a bender is rather wildly bewildered to discover that their housekeeper/nanny is nowhere to be found.

And while I'll won't spell out each ensuing circumstance--as sharply humorous-yet-telling vignettes are pretty much the entirety of the 70-minute piece--the town's mayor (Ann Joseph), a news reporter (Dilworth, who like everyone deftly rotates through roles) and business people (Bryant Hayes, Sonya Madrigal) are among the "white folk" who come to realize the essential everyday contributions of those suddenly gone.

And though it sometimes feels more like an elongated sketch comedy piece than traditional narrative theater, Day of Absence--directed by Congo Square ensemble member Anthony Irons--is genuinely inventive, engaging and compelling.

While making shrewd social comment, it's also a lot of fun.

Congo Square is currently celebrating its 20th season of presenting theater with largely African-American themes.

Though I have seen a variety of diverse plays and musicals at the Black Ensemble Theater, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre and presented by Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Court, Northlight, TimeLine, Writers, Shattered Globe, Porchlight, Raven and many other troupes around Chicagoland, I believe this was my first Congo Square Theatre foray, and I'm certainly better for it.

My interest was candidly prompted by a recent article in the Chicago Reader by Coya Paz Brownrigg that somewhat challenged critics--particularly those from the daily newspapers--to expand their horizons and see/review more works by & representing those of non-white backgrounds.

The Reader piece is certainly worthy of consideration, though IMO also somewhat flawed in some of its contentions. I won't delve deep into that here, but in noting Paz Brownrigg's assertion that the Tribune "rarely covers performance happening on the south and west sides of Chicago," I specifically tried to find shows I might see in such areas.

And wound up in the heart of Lincoln Park.

In no way is this meant as criticism of Congo Square for staging Day of Absence at the Biograph. It's an easily accessible location near the Fullerton Red Line stop and the Christensen theater space well-fits the production.

I just honestly would like to learn of some of the stellar work Paz Brownrigg was referencing--without any specificity--that regularly takes place in areas I don't much get to. 

But whatever your cultural background, consider yourself well-advised to make yourself present at Day of Absence.

For sometimes it takes a bit of disappearance for our individual and collective importance to rightfully be recognized. 

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