Sunday, July 24, 2016

Inspired by Black Lives Matter, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre's #LOVESTORIES Educates, Illuminates and Inspires -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Inspired by Black Lives Matter
A play in 3 parts:
History Fair by Tania Richard
A Shot by Gloria Bond Clunie
Third Rail by Marsha Estell 
Conceived and Directed by Tim Rhoze
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
at Noyes Cultural Arts Center
Thru July 24

Theater, in general, provides me with a tremendous amount of cultural enrichment.

And each summer, for the past 3 years--though the troupe has existed for 37--the African-American themes and perspectives intrinsic to the productions by Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre have provided me with considerable socio-cultural enrichment.

And enlightenment.

But also rather importantly and consistently, entertainment and enjoyment.

Not to mention a sense of community, with mixed audiences watching, thinking, laughing, feeling and applauding together, providing some sense of hope that one's skin pigmentation shouldn't present such an awful chasm--as it clearly does to many in our society.  

With FJT Artistic Director Tim Rhoze--also an actor on the stages of Steppenwolf, Goodman, Northlight, Broadway and beyond--warmly greeting each patron on the way into and out of the theater the company occupies at the hopping Noyes Cultural Arts Center, my mom, sister Allison, a close family friend and I have routinely relished our visits to Fleetwood-Jourdain.

I didn't get a chance to see A Song For Coretta, revolving around conversations among those paying
their respects to Mrs. Coretta Scott King--widow of Dr. Martin Luther King--but heard that FJT's first presentation of 2016 was excellent.

And even though I'm writing this just hours before the last performance of #LOVESTORIES, with little expectation that it will motivate anyone to rush over to the Noyes Center at the last minute--though tickets should be available at the door--I valued the experience of seeing it enough to want to document it anyhow.

Commissioned by Rhoze to artistically reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement, all-too-frequent deaths of African-American men and women at the hands of police, the scourge of gang violence and other weighty topics--including discrimination and violence by blacks against transgender members of their own community--#LOVESTORIES consists of three fine vignettes totaling roughly 80 minutes.

Though the subject matter and actors would render the triptych rather interrelated regardless, they are more overtly connected by the incisive vocalizing of spoken word artist Jackie Colquitt, who also appeared in the plays themselves Saturday night as an understudy for the absent Krystel T. McNeil.

The first of the pieces--probably not long or fully dramatized enough to be fairly deemed "plays" in a typical sense, though each quite compelling in its own right--is History Fair, written by Tania Richard.

It features the delightful Alexis Syncere, an Evanston Township High School student who aptly
personifies a pupil participating in a school History Fair (akin to a Science Fair).

Rather than speak about Abraham Lincoln, MLK or the newly buzzworthy Alexander Hamilton, Syncere's character of Amelia presents the egregious litany of slain police brutality victims, to whom the other cast members briefly give voice and remind that--whether Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, 12-year-old Tamir Rice or far too many others--"I was loved."

Along with it being imparted that there have been many such female victims besides Bland, we are told that the Black Lives Matter movement was begun by three mothers, in hopes of fostering a new system to "prevent this from happening to others."

As with everything I've seen by Fleetwood-Jourdain Theater and the remainder of #LOVESTORIES--including A Shot, in which a heartbroken and anxious grandmother threatens the life of a white politician--History Fair never bristles with militancy nor advocates violence, but rather portrays understandable frustration, incredulity and urgency, as when Amelia emotes, "What we need is radical empathy, radical change, radical reform, radical love."

In A Shot, written by FJT founder Gloria Bond Clunie, Cheryl Frazier is excellent as Nettie Morris, a grandmother who has seen her son killed in the street, has had a stray bullet pierce her window and--in noting that 1-in-3 black men do jail time, the math of which among next door neighbors would seem to earmark her grandson for incarceration--provides a young, white candidate (played by Max Downs) with an invoice for the cost of prison, in hopes that the money be better invested towards a more positive future.

Although few are likely to actually see this vignette, I'm still loath to convey all the specifics of what unfolds.

Yet it becomes rather riveting--and perhaps more so unsettling given the recent killings of cops (obviously after these works were written)--while seeming to honestly reflect the frustration and resentments of African-Americans over not only horrific injustices, but the unceasing spate of neighborhood murders the police and politicians seem unable (or unwilling) to curb.

The final piece, Third Rail by Marsha Estell, is the most dramatically ambitious vignette, but though terrifically acted by Syncere, Colquitt, Downs and Justin Wade--as a wishing-to-transition transgender black man--it was also the most challenging in terms of its message congealing in my mind.

It is more a slice of life, addressing not only LGBTQ issues--and intolerance from those often discriminated against--but also loss and love in various strains and forms.

But that I could empathize with all the characters in Third Rail, and in #LOVESTORIES as a whole, reiterated what I always knew.

That Black Lives Matter.

Not in competition or comparison to any other lives, just equally and--with an appreciation that each black life matters--every bit as specially.

Understanding that I haven't given readers much of a chance to get to the final performance of #LOVESTORIES, I thought I would advise that the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre will be presenting Single Black Female by Lisa B. Thompson on the weekends between August 6-21 and will also be hosting a couple of concerts and a fundraiser. Click the link for details.

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