Chicago Theatre Review
Roger Loves Chaz
The Black White Love Play – Black Ensemble Theatre
Roger Ebert is a legendary film critic and the story of his love for, courtship of, marriage to and life with Chaz Hammel-Smith deserves to be shared and celebrated with the world. Thanks to the power of television, Ebert is best known for his 1975 weekly PBS program with fellow movie critic Gene Siskel, in which they provided thumbs up or down reviews of films that opened the previous week. The TV show evolved through several titles and networks, and after Siskel’s death in 1999, Roger was paired with rotating guest movie critics.
But in 1992 when, at age 50, Ebert was at the apex of his career. It was then that he met, fell in love with and married a beautiful, intelligent trial attorney named Charlie “Chaz” Hammel-Smith. Although it was love at first sight for them, it wasn’t an easy courtship. Even after decades of progress made in race relations, interracial dating and marriage was just beginning to be accepted. Since both Roger and Chaz were both in the public eye, they often had to endure unsolicited, bigoted comments from others. No one, however, was more critical of their union than Chaz’s own mother, but she eventually came to know and love Roger like her own son.
Chaz and Roger loved and supported each another through the ups and downs of married life, but the bad times turned tragic when, in 2002, the revered film critic was diagnosed with throat cancer. The disease spread and Chaz spent the final years of Roger’s life, not only as his wife, but as his best friend and loving, devoted caregiver. Roger Ebert passed away in 2013. This play with music is Jackie Taylor’s tribute to the color blind love shared by these two wonderful people.
Black Ensemble Theater, under Ms. Taylor’s indefatigable leadership, consistently dazzles with its rhythmic revues and musical biographies. As an audience member, she makes it impossible for theatergoers to sit still during her company’s extraordinarily joyful rock n roll and rhythm & blues numbers. The phrase that ends every exciting show is, “It’s almost like being in church!” But for this production, it’s more like being at a memorial service which, in a way, is accurate.
This tribute to the love between two genuine, real-life individuals unfortunately lacks the infectious razzle-dazzle of BET’s previous productions. There are a number of songs, all well-accompanied by Musical Director Robert Reddrick and his six-piece musical combo, and nicely choreographed and performed by an ensemble called the Greek Chorus. The diverse soundtrack, which we’re told contains some of Chaz and Roger’s favorites, includes songs made famous by The Carpenters, The BeeGees, Rod Stewart, Lionel Richie and even Puccini. But it’s like listening to a mixed tape. Instead of being organic to the narrative, the songs simply feel tacked on. In fact, this production more resembles a Lifetime movie with music than one of Jackie Taylor’s usual energetic creations. The tribute to this couple is sincere, has lots of heart and sometimes brings a laugh and a tear to the audience. But, except for offering some good performances and a few unknown facts about Chaz and Roger, the show just isn’t that strong.
Rashada Dawan is the portrait of class and smooth deportment, creating a very authentic and likable Chaz Ebert. Such detail has been given to her wig and costumes that Ms. Dawan really looks like Chaz. This lovely, talented musical actress is the star of this show. She narrates most of the story and she does sing and move a bit; however this actress, who’s known around Chicago for her dynamite portrayal of the title role in “Aida,” is somewhat wasted in this production. Talented Kevin Pollack is groomed to resemble Ebert, as well, with Roger’s glasses, signature silver hair and sweaters and suits. But while this actor/singer has a terrific, powerful vocal range (shown to great finesse in BET’s recent “Men of Soul”), audiences would never know the real talent they have standing before them. Both of these fine actors, unfortunately, have very little to do except relate facts about the Eberts, all told in the first person. There’s very little rise and fall of action and the piece seems merely nostalgic and melancholy.
The show’s musical numbers are performed by four talented couples, all of whom shine in various songs. Kyle Smith continually gets to show off his big smile, unstoppable energy and magnificent dancing skills; Matthew T. Payne impresses with his fine voice, especially in an aria from “Tosca;” Porsche King is a real mover and shaker who audiences can’t take their eyes off; Sally Staats brings a lovely voice and refined choreographic skill to her ensemble work. Qween Wicks, a fan favorite at BET, is warm and wonderful as Chaz’s mother, and Evelyn Danner does a fine job as Griot.
Roger Ebert wrote in his web blog before his passing, “Roger loves Chaz. She fills my horizon, she’s the great fact of my life.”
This highly anticipated show has been on everyone’s radar since it was announced. Audiences have eagerly looked forward to learning more about Chaz and Roger Ebert and reliving their romance and marriage. This just isn’t that show. Sure, it’s heartfelt and gentle, caring and presentational, but Jackie Taylor’s latest offering is more a memorial tribute than a memorable musical bio-drama.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 4-November 1 by the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark, Chicago.
Tickets are available by the box office at 773-769-4451 or by going to www.blackensembletheater.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.