Monday, January 30, 2017

"Love, Not Hate, Makes America Great!" -- Interfaith Rally & March in Morton Grove (and National Resistance) Against Trump's Muslim Ban Brightens a Dark Weekend

This weekend was, or at least threatened to be, one of the ugliest and most distressing of my lifetime, and perhaps--fundamentally--among the worst in U.S. history.

Even in trying to understand things from the perspective of those who don't think like me and didn't vote like me, President Trump's executive order to temporarily ban immigrants and refugees from seven specific Middle Eastern countries--Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen--seems moronic, mean-spirited, bigoted and counter to the principles for which the United States supposedly stands.

Please reference pretty much every other information source in the world for more details and discourse about the purported reasons, purpose, breadth, text and scope of Trump's order--including his business ties to countries not included in the ban, despite their citizens having killed far more Americans through terrorist acts--but it's pretty clear that this is, in essence, a rather malicious Muslim Ban.

Which, for the record, I think is bullshit.

While I believe the scourge of terrorism is real--though, per stats shown nearby, overstated as a source of perpetual fear--the percentage of Muslims engaging in vicious acts is infinitesimal, those seeking relocation and refuge in the United States are vastly more the victimized & vulnerable than evil perpetrators, and it's not like "terrorist" acts on American soil haven't been executed by U.S. citizens, of many colors, creeds and religions, including white Christians.

In a practical sense, Trump's brazen, poorly enacted decree would seem to compromise the safety of American travelers, expatriates and military, impair important business and counterintelligence relationships, stir international antipathy & antagonism and aid recruiting efforts by ISIS and other such terrorist organizations.

And by barring all Syrian refugees indefinitely, the new president would appear to belittle the vast efforts by numerous U.S. agencies and personnel, which--as detailed by the New York Times--already impose stringent vetting in an approval process that can take up to two years.

Even without being directly affected by the executive order, or personally knowing anyone who is, I am aghast at Trump's Muslim Ban, nearly to the point of disbelief that a country that stole the land of Native Americans, grew almost entirely through immigration and promised personal & religious liberty in its Constitution could engage in such petulant, vitriolic and xenophobic policy making.

Thus I was glad to have my distress somewhat mitigated Saturday by the sight of thousands of protestors at airports nationwide, and the efforts of the ACLU resulting in having a stay granted by Judge Ann Donnelly.

Graphic by Seth Arkin
And given the number of individuals detained at U.S. airports upon arrival, including many green card or visa holders with long-established residency, the tireless work of numerous lawyers can only be described as heroic.

Certainly this fight, and many others, will be ongoing, but it was heartening to see the New American Resistance continue to rise after so strongly representing at the Women's March just a week prior.

Although I have detested Donald Trump long before he became a presidential candidate, was perpetually revulsed by his campaign trail rhetoric and devastated by his election, I was willing to grant him the respect the office of the Presidency should afford in a democratic society with open elections and a peaceful transfer of power.

But in just 10 days in office, he has shown himself not only to be diametrically opposed to my beliefs on just about every issue, he has--to paraphrase the sagacity of Mark Twain--opened his presidency by leaving no doubt as to the diabolical bigotry of his aims, and the imbalanced depravity of his brash buffoonery.

Especially compared to many others, I've been relatively terse in expressing my anti-Trump sentiment, on social media and even among friends and family.

Not only didn't I have much to say that myriad others were already expressing far more vehemently, I thought I would save my external, enraged protest until treachery was actually enacted...

...and I felt the best way for me to "fight back" was to show those more vulnerable that I stand with them.

Since Trump's election, I had done so predominantly with my checkbook, making donations to the ACLU, CAIR (Council for American-Islamic Relations), Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the White Helmets (for Aleppo aid), the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Everytown for Gun Safety, Doctors Without Borders, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), The Amplifier Foundation (We the People art campaign) and ongoing contributions to Global Empathy Now.

(Today, I've also given to Kal Penn's Syrian Refugee Fund "in the name of the dude who said I don't belong in America," the Muslim Community Center and more to the ACLU, in recognition of their vital efforts over the weekend.)

So when I awoke on Sunday around noon--to be fair I had been up watching (part of) the Federer-Nadal Australian Open final into the wee hours the night before--and saw a text from my sister Allison about sign-making ideas for an afternoon rally at a mosque in Morton Grove... seemed, so as not to be full of shit about what I purport to believe, I should get my fat ass out of bed and actually do something.

Hence, in just 35 minutes, while devouring some Cap'n Crunch, I made a double-sided sign (with the Let Them In and United We Stand graphics shown above), put on the most ecumenical outfit I could quickly surmise--a Cubs champions hoodie with a White Sox cap--and accompanied Allison to the Muslim Education Center in Morton Grove.

Along with my cereal, I had quickly ingested a brief Skokie Patch story about the march & rally, but didn't really know what to expect.

It was cool to see the parking lot entirely full when we arrived--fortunately nearby street parking was available--and a vast turnout that filled a downstairs event space at the center and much of the main level containing a gymnasium along with the mosque.

As the center's Imam, Nazim Mangera, would so wonderfully put it:

"There are maybe 500, 1000 people here. Or alternative facts of 1.5 million."

Although the Muslim Ban and weekend protests brought hundreds of people of various ages, races and faiths to the event, it soon became obvious that the well-organized program had been planned months in advance, likely after Trump's election but without expectations of an overflow crowd.

Not that the Imam, the event organizers--Dilnaz Waraich of the Muslim Community Center (which includes both the Morton Grove facility and one on Elston in Chicago) and Lesley Williams of Jewish Voice for Peace, a woman Allison knows--and others who spoke weren't enthusiastically grateful for the turnout and support.

With Ms. Waraich warmly serving as the program's emcee, we were treated to some songs by a cantor named Jay O'Brien (I think)--including the refrain of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and The Weavers' "If I Had a Hammer"--and soon after, the Niles West High School choir led uplifting singalongs, including "We Shall Overcome."

Along with much I observed on Sunday, it was really a thing of beauty to hear such a large, diverse crowd standing and singing this historic song of perseverance and protest. (See video below; apologies for my braying.)

An immigration lawyer I believe to be named Kalman Resnick spoke about the work he and over 50 others were doing at O'Hare Airport, conveying that--as of about 2:00pm on Sunday--most immigrants and permanent residents had been admitted, but that there were people who had been returned to the Middle East.

Opening with a great quip--"I've always said, a great friend is one who comes out to the airport for you"--Ms. Williams, co-chair of Jewish Voice for Peace Network against Islamophobia, imparted that "This is not a moment, it's a movement" before quoting the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Imam Mangera graciously thanked the large crowd, and a Niles North student named Miriam and a Niles West teacher whose name I didn't catch well-enough to even guess at, both delivered excellent speeches that truly resonated.

The young woman, part of a school group called SOAR--Students Organized Against Racism--boldly spoke against the President's perceived agenda: "We will rise against his hate and come out stronger than ever before."

And to great applause the teacher gave something of a civics lesson, pointing out that "since 2005, 71 Americans have been killed by terrorism, yet over 300,000 by gun violence."

He also shared another great MLK quote, which I identified with due to recently using the nearby graphic as a Facebook profile photo, and ended by citing the hashtag:


The crowd (which I now see estimated at 1,200 people) then took to the streets, walking a mile and a half loop, mostly down Dempster Street and back to the mosque, as many drivers honked their support.

Allison and I were somewhat near the front of the marchers, who stretched beyond 3 city blocks, and continually engaged in chants such as:

"No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!" (alternatively "everyone is welcome here")

"Love, not hate, makes America great!"

The march would seem to have been the culmination of an (under the circumstances) uplifting day--sadly ruined later by news of the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque, which some horribly and inaccurately tried to use to defend the Muslim ban by misidentifying the suspected shooter's ethnicity--but upon the return to the Muslim Education Center, we were funneled into the gymnasium, soon packed to capacity.

Here we heard from several more speakers, including Illinois state senator Daniel Biss, U.S. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Rev. Michael Nabors of the Second Baptist Church of Evanston, Pastor Liz Munoz La Reve of the Iglesia Episcopal Nuestra Senora de las Americas, President of Muslim Community Center Sarwar Nasir, Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet Synagogue, a transgender high school student and once again the event's hosts, Waraich and Williams.

Providing a variety of ethnic and religious perspectives, all were unified in condemning the Muslim Ban and the direction of the new administration.

About Trump, Rev. Nabors stated, "This is not presidential material," and then to a huge ovation declared, "This is what America looks like. This is the new resistance." 

After which Pastor Munoz La Reve tellingly imparted about the President's rash executive orders and seeming objectives:

"Ask yourself if "I'm next."" 

"If you're certain that you're not, that's called privilege."

"And if [you're] not [certain], I've got your back."

To which I can only say, "Amen," before concluding with the words of perhaps the most courageous orator of the day, a transgender Niles West freshman, who spoke extremely eloquently, ending with this abiding tenet for us all:

"The power of the people is stronger than the people in power."

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sunset in Bronzeville: In a Place of Jazz Legends, Al Capone, Machine Politics and a Family's Legacy, Meyers Ace Hardware Soon to Be History

I'm not sure exactly how, when or why, but sometime within the last few years I became aware of Chicago's historic Sunset Café--a pioneering jazz club dating to the 1920s--and the building's continued existence as an Ace Hardware store in Bronzeville on the city's south side.

The Wikipedia entry on the Sunset Café--and articles from the Chicago Reader, Chicago Patterns and Chicago Architecture--provided a basic but quite intriguing overview:

A building at 315 E. 35th St., built in 1909 as an automobile garage, became the Sunset Café in 1921.

Around that time, Bronzeville was a major entertainment district, and although the area had a substantial African-American community that would grow through the Great Migration, the Sunset--which seems to have been initially owned by an impresario named Ed Fox--was an integrated "Black and Tan" club. 

There were around 100 tables, a dance floor and a bandstand, upon which some of the most legendary names in jazz history would perform.

I can't claim certainty about exactly who played at the Sunset or when--including after the club became the Grand Terrace Cafe--but it seems the Carroll Dickerson Sunset Syncopated Orchestra was the initial (or early) house band, with whom, beginning in 1926, Louis Armstrong would often play trumpet and Earl "Fatha" Hines piano.

The band was renamed Louis Armstrong and his Stompers, with whom a 20-year-old Cab Calloway would get his start. When Armstrong left for New York, Calloway took over the Sunset bandstand, but would also soon leave for Harlem's famed Cotton Club. (The Sunset Café is said to be just second in legend in terms of pioneering jazz clubs.)

Hines would take over for Calloway and maintain a 12-year-residency, during which his orchestra would be broadcast nationwide over the radio.

Due to some conflicting and/or confusing information I found, I'm not sure exactly when the Sunset Cafe became the Grand Terrace Café.

Wikipedia says 1928, while the landmark plaque denotes 1937, and this 1985 Chicago Tribune article shares that Hines was still playing at the original, nearby Grand Terrace Cafe at 3955 S. Calumet into the '30s.

I also read that the Grand Terrace Cafe became the New Grand Terrace Cafe at some point. Legend has it that Al Capone took a controlling interest in the "club" by strong-arming Ed Fox, but whether this was of the Sunset Café or the Grand Terrace at its old location or the still extant 315 E. 35th St. building (sometimes previously referenced as 317 E. 35th St.) is somewhat fuzzy.

If you look at the nearby graphic, and note the club names and addresses--with years largely unspecified--it should suggest while I'm being circumspect about stating anything with certitude.

Along these lines, I'm also unclear when Louis Armstrong's manager Joe Glaser became owner of the club at 315-317 E. 35th St. His involvement at some point isn't much disputed, but while Wikipedia seems to suggest he was the original owner, a City of Chicago Landmarks report notes it was Ed Fox along with a real estate speculator named Samuel Rifas.

Hence, while the following list of jazz luminaries said to have played at the Sunset Café and/or Grand Terrace Cafe at the 315-317 E. 35th St., Chicago, location is mighty impressive even if only half accurate, be aware that--while culled from various sources--it may well be inexact:

Carroll Dickerson, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Bix Beiderbecke, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Dodds, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat "King" Cole, Billy Eckstein, tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Charlie Parker ... and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other musicians and entertainers. 

Anyway, the above information--or some amalgamation/variation of it--is what I had learned online about the Sunset Café and Grand Terrace Cafe, along with the fact that the building has long housed Meyers Ace Hardware and that, as shown below, the store's back wall (including inside the owner's office) still depicts murals that were a stage backdrop during its legendary jazz age.

Since learning about this storied history, I imagined that it could be cool to venture down to the store, see the murals, meet the owner--who articles noted as David Meyers--and write a Seth Saith article about it.

But I hadn't ever done so.

Until a couple weeks ago, when I saw a posting to a Facebook group called Forgotten Chicago, which pointed me to this article on DNA Info about the store's impending closure (likely at the end of February).

Soon after I called the store and was assured that I could come see the murals, though I still had some time to do so.

So last Saturday, I convinced my mom and sister to take a field trip with me down to Bronzeville.

We readily found the store, saw the landmark plaque and some Sunset Cafe postcards in the window, and eagerly entered... quickly learn that the owner didn't work on Saturdays. And the main mural was in his locked office.

Explaining our reason for the visit, we were kindly shown a makeshift kitchen alcove which contains part of the stage mural, and took note of community residents openly expressing sadness to see the store closing.

This sentiment was further stressed by one of the employees, who noted she had worked there a long time.

By the time I had returned to the store on Tuesday--whereupon I met David Meyers, was shown the mural in the office by his brother Joel and was given a tour by another brother, Daniel, who spoke with me at length--I was starting to sense that the most compelling story here wasn't one about jazz history, as great, important and fascinating as it may be.

As I learned from Dan Meyers--a VP and store employee for 39+ years; his brother Dave is president and has been there 40--their father moved Meyers Hardware into its current location in 1962, after their grandfather had run the store just down the street since 1921, in a building long since replaced. [Note: I've been advised that the store likely didn't become an "Ace" Hardware store until sometime in the '70s.]

Louis Meyers, an apprentice carpenter who came to America in 1914, had been encouraged by his wife Freida to open a business.

So they bought a tobacco shop (likely at 333 E. 35th) and converted it into Meyers Hardware in 1921. Daniel proudly showed me a storage unit and wooden drawers his grandfather had built for the original store, still in use today (see nearby photo).

If I understand it correctly, Louis' son Henry--father of David, Daniel, Joel (a retired pharmacist) and another brother who is an electrical engineer--was running the store by 1962, when the desired expansion of a drugstore next door prompted him to buy the building at 315 E. 35th...

...from Joe Glaser, manager of Louis Armstrong.

The Meyers soon discovered the murals and while Henry's wife thought they were ugly, her husband insisted that they had to leave them on the walls as they were "history."

Dan, who had been a history major at UIC, showed me upstairs--using the staircase that Louis Armstrong, Fatha Hines and other legends had once traversed--to a large unused space that had once been a private club.

He also filled me in that between the  Grand Terrace Cafe's closure--ostensibly in 1950--and Meyers Ace taking over the building, it had served as the headquarters for U.S. Rep. William L. Dawson, then the most powerful African-American politician in the country, also less admirably said to be a patronage boss tied to the Daley machine.

I was shown a tote board Dawson had presumably used to track Chicago ward/precinct vote tallies, and also a sign with the congressman's name on it.

Interestingly, after my visit, I came upon this 1974 Chicago Tribune article by Vernon Jarrett about how aides on John F. Kennedy's 1960 Presidential campaign visited Dawson's offices--at 315 E. 35th--to discuss how to get out the black vote for JFK. (Dawson himself wasn't present.)

With a news crew from WGN-TV also in the store when I visited on Tuesday, I was quite grateful for all the time I had been granted, and all the more appreciative of how all the hallowed jazz that had once been played here--and the echoes were almost palpable, especially when standing on the stage and in the upstairs room--wasn't the only history to be celebrated.

Or whose time gone by is to be rued.

Yes, Satchmo and Fatha and Cab and Ella once performed here, the commandments of jazz written--and even re-written in the early days of bebop.

And at a time when races didn't much intermingle, integrated audiences savored the sounds of the Sunset, together.

But perhaps just as astonishing is the fact that here, and originally within shouting distance, an orthodox Jewish family--which is why the owner wasn't there on Saturday--has served the hardware needs of a largely African-American community for 96 years.

Just imagine how many homes and businesses have been built, repaired and renovated thanks to supplies bought at Meyers Ace. How many people improved their surroundings, or at the store itself, made a living.

In discussing the downturn leading up to the decision to close the store and sell the building, Dan Meyers noted not only the rise of Home Depot, Lowe's and Menards, but shared how since the nearby Robert Taylor Homes--a public housing project--were torn down in 2007, 40% of the store's business was lost.

"New condominiums are nice, but they have nothing to replace," he observed.

From both Dan and Dave, who I also spoke with briefly, I sensed true chagrin over the way their employees are being affected, and in the recent DNA Info article by Sam Cholke, Dave admitted:

"I don’t sleep at night, it’s killing me,” Meyers said about his decision in November to close the store. “I still need a job — I am by no means getting rich on this deal."

While the building has been sold, any plans the new owner may have for it are unknown, at least to me. Daniel noted they had received some generous offers for some artifacts, but since the murals are part of the walls, and the building is landmarked, theoretically at least they have to stay put.

In a 2014 article on, David Meyers said he would love to turn the store into a jazz museum, but didn't have the means.

Neither do I, though I think it's a rather fantastic idea.

So hopefully the new owners of 315 E. 35th St. in Chicago will at least do something that respects and honors the legacy of not only some of the most important jazz musicians in history--and a key location at which they played--but that of the Meyers family and their hardware store that served the Bronzeville community for nearly a century.

I'm glad I got a look, enjoyed an enlightening discussion and even picked up a padlock and some nails for 20% off.

You'd do well to do likewise, and while the store should be open until the end of February, calling ahead--312-225-5687--is never a bad idea.

As for a set of four Sunset Café magnets, I think I may have bought the last full batch.

Forever attracted by the past, indeed.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Warren Piece: Appreciating Mr. Zevon at (What Should Be) 70 -- (repost)

Photo by Andrew L. Seymour, © 1982. From Flickr. All rights reserved.
(Originally posted on 1/29/12, commemorating what would have been Warren Zevon's 65th birthday a few days earlier. Zevon died on 9/7/03 at the age of 56.)

The 1970s were a hallowed time for American (and occasionally Canadian) male singer-songwriters, or just solo rockers, if the distinction is discernible and important.

Among those who rose to fame, and/or continued to make stellar music in the seventies, were Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, James Taylor and Leonard Cohen.

Though I was a bit young to attend concerts, at least of my own volition, back then, I feel fortunate that I've seen most of these men live on-stage at some point since, many multiple times.

But an artist who belongs in the same sentence as those luminaries--and like them, in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame--that I never saw live, and ruefully never will, is Warren Zevon.

It's not that I never appreciated Zevon prior to his passing, from peritoneal mesothelioma in September 2003; infectious songs like "Werewolves of London" and "Excitable Boy," among others, have long been favorites and I've owned and enjoyed a greatest hits set since the 1980s.

Illustration by R.J. Matson
But for whatever reason, interest and opportunity never conspired to bring me to the Park West--his typical Chicago venue--or anywhere else he performed. Though I don't recall passing on any specific chances to see Warren Zevon, he stands, like the Ramones and Joe Strummer (of the Clash), as one of those artists I now wish I had made the effort to see, even if it may have been a bit beyond the height of their fame.

For as someone who tends to check Wikipedia to see who was born, or died, on a certain date, on January 24 I noted that Warren Zevon--had things been different--would be celebrating his 65th birthday. [NOTE: Now 70th]. Since then I've been listening to a lot of his music, including some of his later albums I just borrowed from the library, and watching myriad clips on YouTube, that portal of videographic immortality.

So I've been both reminded and newly introduced to just how good--and distinct--he was. Even in the late seventies period when, beyond his American peers, Brits like Elvis Costello and Graham Parker were creating driving, incisive rock tunes, there was something about Zevon that stands as completely unique.

I can't think of any rock star who has ever made the piano sound so exciting--not even Billy Joel or Elton John--and his lyrics were, as David Letterman--on whose show Zevon often guested--offers in a clip included below, " vivid, just very evocative, and each song you listen to was like watching a motion picture."

And as portrayed through the clips I've chosen to include below--and well beyond--the range of Zevon's subjects and styles was rather amazing, from songs of quiet, introspective beauty to those of bitingly macabre humor. It's not surprising that Zevon was great friends and collaborators with many of his contemporaries--including Springsteen, Browne, Young, Dylan, the Eagles and later, R.E.M.--or that among those who recognize how honest and profound his music could be, he's still widely revered. Just take a look at the comments on most of his YouTube clips; in a forum that's often exceedingly snarky, you'll commonly see posts saying things like "Nobody could do that! He was a genius." and "RIP Warren. It will be a long time before we see another like you."

So whether you're a longtime Zevonophile--and many are much more fervid than I--or largely uninitiated to the man who was born on January 24, 1947 in Chicago (and, after moving to California, studied piano as a child with Igor Stravinsky), here are some great examples from "Mr. Bad Example"--a song of his not included here.

(Note: The last video below is a compilation of all 12 that you can play through if you'd just like to listen.)

"Excitable Boy" - Like "Werewolves of London," a gleeful rock tune about an disturbing subject. The clip, from a concert in 1982, also shows how great a live performer Zevon was.

"Hasten Down The Wind" - About a romantic breakup, this is, for my money, one of the most beautiful rock songs ever written.

"Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" - In September 2002, Zevon revealed his terminal diagnosis. The next month, he paid his last visit to Letterman's show, where in addition to guest slots he had also filled for Paul Shaffer over the years. He played 3 or 4 songs, with this one--a request from Dave--being the last one he would ever perform in public.

"Disorder in the House" - After his diagnosis, Zevon wrote and recorded a final album, The Wind, on which many of his famous friends made guest appearances, such as Bruce Springsteen did on this song.

"Poor Poor Pitiful Me" - Like most great songwriters, Zevon often proved that songs originally recorded with a full band held up wonderfully when stripped down to just him and a guitar or piano. This clip is one such example, and his 1993 live acoustic album, Learning to Flinch, is even more revelatory.

"Raspberry Beret" - R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry backed Zevon on his 1987 album, Sentimental Hygiene, and the foursome dubbed themselves Hindu Love Gods for a 1990 album of blues covers and this Prince tune. (Note: Originally was a clip of Zevon doing the song on Letterman, but it's no longer on YouTube.)
"Accidentally Like A Martyr" - Another of Zevon's great ballads.

"A Certain Girl" - Further proof of his live prowess.

"Porcelain Monkey" - Off 2000's Life'll Kill Ya, this song's about Elvis Presley.

"Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" - I prefer the studio version, but have always enjoyed this song. Particularly when visiting Denver.

Letterman Tribute and "Mutineer" - On the day of Zevon's death, Letterman and Shaffer pay tribute to him. There's a clip from his final visit, on which Zevon famously shares that the key to life is to "enjoy every sandwich." Also within the video is a clip of "Mutineer" from the last appearance.

"Werewolves of London" - One of the great songs of the '70s, it never gets old. Done here live in New Jersey, hence Zevon sings "Werewolves of Jersey" at one point.

A compilation of all the above videos that will run straight through.

Monday, January 23, 2017

For Reasons Hard to Specify, I Didn't Find Goodman's 'Gloria' All That G-L-O-R-I-O-U-S -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by Evan Cabnet
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 19

Singing--at least in my head--the famed "G-L-O-R-I-A" refrain of "Gloria" by Them (featuring Van Morrison), as well as two other rock songs sharing the same name (one by Laura Branigan, the other by U2), none of which have anything to do with the play, I took my seat Sunday afternoon with a good amount of anticipation.

Gloria, referenced as a dark comedy, is a 2015 play written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a young playwright who has earned considerable regard.

In its world premiere, off-Broadway production at New York's Vineyard Theater, Gloria earned rave reviews--such as this one from the New York Post--as well as prestigious award nominations, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Robert Falls, the legendary artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, "found Gloria to be among the smartest, most entertaining and provocative pieces I have seen in many years" and brought the play to Chicago with the original cast and director, Evan Cabnet.

Having now seen Gloria, I wish I could tell you I loved it.

But I can't.

And I can't even, in good conscience, tell you much of what it's about, or therefore do a decent job of specifying why I didn't greatly care for a play many others clearly have.

If you are planning to see the play--as perhaps, like me, a Goodman subscriber--knowing as little as possible going in would probably be best.

Initially set in the editorial offices of a magazine in modern day Manhattan, the two-act Gloria features six primary characters who work there, in either their 20s or 30s.

All of the actors handle their roles well, including Ryan Spahn (as Dean), Jennifer Kim (Kendra), Catherine Combs (Ani), Jeanine Serralles (Gloria), Michael Crane (Lorin) and Kyle Beltran, who I'd seen as Usnavi in the first national tour of In the Heights, as Miles.

As always, the Goodman features strong scenery, though based on photos it seems Takeshi Kata's New York set was re-created verbatim.

While I've never spent much time in a work environment quite like the one depicted, the dialogue among the colleagues about their social lives, co-workers, bosses, office gossip, a celebrity's death and a creeping sense of disillusionment eroding their ambition feels not only believable, but resonant as well.

So it isn't as though I can't see why Falls, New York critics and presumably other Goodman patrons were far more smitten--I'm curious to see what other Chicago reviewers have to say, though it may be a few days since I believe I technically saw a preview performance--and Jacobs-Jenkins' voice beguiled me enough to readily explore other works by him.

But without wishing to get any more detailed, I rarely found Gloria very compelling and ultimately thought it was rather callous and cold about its subject matter.

I realize that may well be part of the author's point, and I also know that without further details it's a bit unfair as criticism.

So while I can't personally recommend Gloria, I not only wouldn't dissuade anyone from attending--except those with certain experiences, which I'm sorry I can't spell out--I hope and imagine many may like it far more than I did.

If and when you see Gloria, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts and to further enunciate on why I found it disturbing--and really just wanted it to end long before it did.

To each their own; that's the beauty of art...and theater.

But clearly--while noting that music is prominent in what isn't a musical and features no lyrical references to the titular character--I wasn't singing on my way out of the theater.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Heart & Soul Power: Excellent Work by "Old Man" Ed McGuire Makes For a Fine 'Prelude to a Kiss' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Prelude to a Kiss
by Craig Lucas
Presented by The Comrades
at Greenhouse Theater Center
Thru February 5

SPOILER ALERT: It is almost impossible to give even a basic description of Prelude to a Kiss without revealing its central plot twist.

As the play was first produced in 1988 and a movie version four years later, not only is this conceit far from a secret, I don't think knowing it going in harms one's appreciation of the play (it's probably even helpful). But if you want to be oblivious, stop reading here and just know that due to some fine acting, especially by an elderly actor named Ed McGuire, The Comrades' new production of the Craig Lucas piece about love is rather worthwhile.


I saw the Prelude to a Kiss movie starring Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin, just once, years ago, on a plane, but I recall liking it.

I hadn't previously seen the play but a solid yearlong Broadway run, Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations and being a Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist bespeak a highly regarded work by Craig Lucas, a playwright who's had a nice career.

I've seen and enjoyed several plays directed by Derek Bertelsen, who helms this production, and admire The Comrades troupe that he heads.

This rendition of Prelude to a Kiss features two likable leads (David Coupe and Bethany Hart as Peter and Rita), and while I felt there was a bit too much '80s sheen added to a piece that was written and set then but whose insights can be read somewhat differently now--NY Times critic Frank Rich originally wrote: "...this play can be taken as an indirect treatment of [AIDS]," which is not something I picked up on--it remains a pretty powerful look at love, our inner/outer selves and what makes us not only unique but attractive to others (on a holistic level).

Yet the most specific reason I found this production to be excellent and well-worth your time is the performance of Ed McGuire in the key role of "Old Man."

If I can now, safely, reference the unique premise of Prelude to a Kiss, at the wedding of Peter and Rita an uninvited old man wanders in, wishes them well, gives the bride a smooch...and then takes over her body as she does his.

As with many, I presume, I knew this upon entering the theater, but I didn't recall that the prelude to the kiss entails about half an hour of Peter and Rita meeting, romancing, falling in love and preparing for their wedding, including his meeting her parents (nicely played here by James Spangler and Carol Ludwick).

While I recognize that getting to know the characters is crucial to the rest of the play, post-kiss, I can't say I found the preamble all that fascinating. Coupe and Hart are attractive and engaging, their chemistry sufficient, but amid bad '80s jackets and Miami Vice color schemes, there wasn't enough of a dynamism to have me all that riveted.

Or in a bit of cheeky criticism that really isn't meant critically, two fine young local actors weren't as compelling as Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin (circa 1992, at least to the point that memory serves).

But until I just looked it up, I didn't remember who played the Old Man in the movie version--Sydney Walker--and based on his being listed 8th on IMDB perhaps he doesn't get as much screen time as stage time, but it's hard for me to imagine him doing a significantly better job than McGuire does here.

I haven't knowingly seen Ed McGuire onstage before, but the play's program notes that he's performed for over 35 years in Chicago and Florida, so he's clearly no newcomer.

But perhaps due to a bit of frailty in an actor I'm guessing is pushing 80 if not beyond, he imbues the Old Man with a particularly fine realism, even in convincingly acting like the young woman inhabiting him.

While body swap stories--Freaky Friday, Big, Vice-Versa, Like Father Like Son, etc., etc.--unavoidably involve misunderstanding, disbelief, discovery/revelation and re-examination as also happens here, the pathos of good ones makes you feel warmth well beyond the way gimmicky tropes can make you (OK, me) cringe.

McGuire--and also Hart when acting as if the Old Man is within Rita--goes a long way to getting the tonality right, and I was genuinely moved by the end of the one-act 90-minute play.

If I was supposed to see how much Peter had changed due to the supernatural scenario, I'm not sure I did as--overtly bad fashion choices notwithstanding--he seemed like a decent guy from the beginning, even if armed with some hammy dialogue.

But without spoiling anything further, I presume the message of Prelude is that true love entails seeing one another in intimate ways--including internally--that perhaps even our own parents might miss.

Especially for just $15-$20 or even less through HotTix and Goldstar, Prelude to a Kiss is never less than an enjoyably entertaining evening of theater that should well continue The Comrades' appeal to younger patrons new to the theater scene.

But with deference not only to Coupe and Hart, but an enjoyable 12-person cast, it is when McGuire takes over the stage later in the show that this Prelude to a Kiss really starts to feel blissful.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Night After Night, Show After Show, Buddy Guy's Legend Continues to Grow -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Buddy Guy
w/ opening act Corey Dennison
acoustic set by
Joe Moss & Sean McKee
Buddy Guy's Legends
January 12, 2017
(part of 16-show residency through January 29)

Forever young at the age of 80, the legendary Buddy Guy maintains a touring schedule that would put to shame many a far younger musician.

Including his current 16-show residency at his own Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago, the blues icon is presently scheduled to play 75 concerts in 2017, with all but 10 coming before the end of May.

Along with crisscrossing the U.S. mainland from Seattle to St. Augustine, Guy is scheduled to appear in Paris and at Bluesfest near Byron Bay, Australia. This comes after 70+ shows in 2016 that also took him to Europe.

If Buddy Guy comes to play in a town near you, I emphatically recommend you go see him, as the sound emitted when his fingers blaze along the fretboard of his Fender Stratocaster is one of most glorious you'll ever hear.


But while catching Buddy at a comfortable theater with reserved seats may be far more hassle-free than figuring out the game plan for fitting in among the cultish legions who pack his shows at Legends, seeing him in that hometown setting has been one of the great thrills of my life.

Repeatedly, and again this past Thursday.

This was the 7th time (over the past 16 years) I ventured to the 700 block of South Wabash to see Buddy Guy at his namesake club. (I also saw him once at Ravinia and opening for--and playing alongside--the Rolling Stones at Milwaukee Summerfest in 2015.)

I happily would have gone far more often, but while the cost to see Buddy onstage for about 100 minutes is fair, it's not inestimable, and to get a seat you have to arrive at the club hours ahead of time.

(For those for whom this, or considerable standing in a crowded club, isn't an appealing option, I recommend the archived broadcasts of the Legends shows for just $5 each, which you can find here at In past years shows were broadcast live, but this doesn't seem to be the case in 2017.)

When my ticketed companion for Thursday night fell ill, I was somewhat surprised to have my mom offer to pinch hit at the last minute, and in reaching Legends around 4:30pm table seating was already quite sparse.

Fortuitously, we were able to get a pair of seats at a table with a couple who had come from Oregon primarily to see Buddy--they said they had done so once before, in 2001, and were delighted to have another chance--and had gotten to the club by 11:30am.

It seems many other of the patrons seated at tables had come even earlier, waiting out in the cold before Legends opened its doors at 11am. (Note: The timeline I will reference applies to Thursday and Sunday shows of Buddy Guy's residency; Sat./Sun. shows run later, so check pertinent info for yourself if you plan to attend.)

Appreciably, Buddy and those who help him run Legends are aware of the devotion of his fans, and on nights when he is scheduled to begin playing at 9:00pm, the live music begins at 4:00pm with a 2-1/2 hour set of acoustic blues.

Hence, when we arrived, a performer I later discerned to be named Joe Moss was playing and singing, accompanied by a younger man named Sean McKee, whom Moss identified as having been a student of his.

Their set was enjoyable, and provided a nice soundtrack for my dinner of Blackened Catfish, garlic mashed potatoes, collared greens, gumbo and cornbread.

My mom had some veggie gumbo and I couldn't resist trying the Peanut Buddy Pie.

All of the food was excellent. I've only ever been to Legends to see Buddy Guy, but I really should get there more often.

At 7:30 came the night's official opening act, Corey Dennison, a singer and guitarist whose announced moniker of the Chattanooga Cannonball seemed just about perfect. (He also seemed to be nicknamed "The Deacon.")

Frequently cajoling the audience to stand, the affable and energetic Dennison delivered a highly enjoyable hour with three bandmates, including a rather formidable guitarist named Gerry Hundt.

I can't confidently name any of their songs, but one was presumably, "Misti"--with an M-I-S-T-I refrain--while others may have been called "Where the Green Grass Grows," "I'm Gone" and "Are You Serious?"

You can actually watch Dennison's entire Jan. 12 set at Legends here, and some may enjoy (and perhaps better explain to me) the lyrical reference to "Levi Roosevelt Franklin Stubbs," which seems to pay homage to both the lead singer of the Four Tops and a former major league ballplayer.

Dennison would later share the stage with Buddy Guy near the end of the latter's set, and clearly seemed to be having the time of his life.

Leading up to Buddy and his band, a drawing was held to win a guitar signed by the legend himself.

I gladly had bought an entry ticket for $5, not just to support Buddy Guy's efforts--through PCA Blue--to raise awareness for prostate cancer, which took the life of his brother Phil in 2008, but because my good friend Ken, with whom I had seen Buddy in 2014, had won a signed guitar the previous Saturday night.

My drawing ticket was number 541331.

From the stage, a ticket was pulled and read:


Darn! So close.

Oh well, I did buy a souvenir coaster shaped like a guitar pick that Buddy signed after his show, as he does for all fans who buy merchandise.

My polite request to have a quick picture taken with him was rebuffed by a security guard, but neither that nor not winning the guitar mattered much, as just seeing Buddy play, sing and regale (with stories, wisdom and other quips) once again was prize enough.

Resplendent in a sky blue pinstriped suit, Buddy Guy took the stage Thursday night around 9:15 and didn't leave it nearly to 11.

Still appearing to be in great shape, Buddy apologized for a rough voice--it wasn't too bad--due to it being f'ed up by a flu shot he insisted he didn't request, and proceeded to remind why, with due respect to other great, surviving blues artists who had migrated to Chicago decades ago (Lonnie Brooks, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater, Carl Weathersby, etc.), there is no one else quite like him.

This is a man who recorded with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf--among many others--in the early days of Chess Records, and a groundbreaking guitarist who clearly influenced Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck (with whom he toured last year), Jimi Hendrix, Billy Gibbons and so many more.

Yet, as I must make clear, going to see Buddy Guy in 2017 is not a trip of mere reverence.

Sure, there's reason for awe, and Buddy should be cherished for who he is, where he's been, what he's seen and what he did long ago.

But the lightning and thunder are still very much alive, and damn thrilling.

My mom, who I've never known to be a blues aficionado, was abundantly and demonstrably dazzled, as Guy knocked off blazing guitar leads, locked in with keyboardist Marty Sammon, deferred to Ric Hall--a brilliant guitarist in his own right--played classics like "Hoochie Coochie Man," honored requests for "Mary Ann" and "Feels Like Rain" and made spoken and/or musical reference to Clapton, Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Lee Hooker, Lil' Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and seminal harmonica player Junior Wells, with whom Buddy famously collaborated in the 1960s.

Though I can't cite song titles, Buddy noted and played tunes from his Grammy-winning 2015 album, Born to Play Guitar, and also delighted with runs through "Fever" (as made famous by Peggy Lee), "Knock on Wood" (which I came to know through Anita Ward) and various snippets, including "Strange Brew," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and Hendrix' "Voodoo Chile," which, as always, brought goosebumps.

He even played the guitar with his teeth, and behind his back; old tricks that brought new wonder.

With Tim Austin on drums and Orlando Wright on bass, Buddy Guy seemed comfortable in the spotlight at the mic, but also away from it while letting his top-notch band shine.

Memory doesn't serve enough to say if he's slowed down any, but terrific songs and blistering solos were more than sufficient for my money...and effort.

As I tried to intimate above, seeing Buddy Guy at venues other than Legends may be easier, but I doubt any would feel as special and--including by frequently flashing one of the greatest smiles you'll ever see--he's always made me happy to witness him in his hometown lair, which houses enough memorabilia to make for a blues museum.

Noting that 2017 marks 60 years since he came to Chicago--on September 25, 1957, as he specified--after being born and raised in Louisiana, Buddy graciously thanked the audience for supporting the blues while stating:

"I know I can't please all of you, but I damn sure try."

Indeed you do, Mr. Guy--try and please, both--and while praising the show I just saw, recommending others get down to Legends if at all possible and looking forward to my next opportunity, I'll end this simply by saying:

Thanks, Buddy.

Buddy Guy, faster than the live video feed behind him.