Chicago Theatre Review
All There in Black and White
Thaddeus and Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure – Lookingglass Theatre
It’s 1908. Presidential candidate William Howard Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan, the Garfield Park Conservatory opened to the public and the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. In response to the arrest of two African Americans, Springfield saw violent race riots. Meanwhile, in Chicago, more than two dozen vaudeville houses were flourishing. They were primarily white-owned, attended and performed. By law, only one Negro act was allowed at these venues, while down on South State Street, at the black-owned and operated Pekin Theater, any African American artist with talent could find employment. Yet, besides performing on street corners, it was every performer’s dream to work at Chicago’s Majestic Theater.
Playwright Kevin Douglas has written a new comic drama with music that navigates through the history and racial politics of the vaudeville industry at the turn of the century. He’s created two leading characters, Thaddeus and Slocum, a black and white comedy team who make their living entertaining patrons with songs, jokes, dance and acrobatics. Their dream is to become employed by Chicago’s prestigious Majestic Theater, where there’s already one Negro act on the bill. Another act called Black Magic stars an actor who appears in blackface, smearing burnt cork on his skin to make his character look black. Slocum comes up with the idea for Thaddeus, his talented African American vaudeville partner, and himself also to both wear blackface, in order to pass themselves off as white performers playing Negro characters—strictly, as they claim, for comic effect. If discovered, however, they could both be arrested, or worse.
Co-directed by J. Nicole Brooks and Krissy Vanderwarker, the play follows this dynamic duo as they work their way up over the barriers that barred most black actors from working in public entertainment in 1908. Their production is a collaboration, featuring the talents of circus choreographer Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, dance choreography by Katie Spelman and fight choreography created by Ryan Bourque. In addition, composer Rick Sims has written a musical score, under the musical direction of Jon Schneidman, that’s sometimes prerecorded and at other moments played and sung live by the cast.
The versatile Lookingglass space has been totally reinvented and turned into a large proscenium stage, by scenic designer Collette Pollard. Her set utilizes the aisles and includes balconies, theatrical gas footlights and a gorgeous scarlet master drape, as well as cafe tables that are used both by various characters, as well as some of the audience. The action is staged everywhere in this fluid environment, bringing the story directly into the lap of the audience. This challenges lighting designer Christine A. Binder to illuminate the space so that everyone is visible, a challenge she nicely fulfills. The luscious period costumes by Samantha Jones, making her Lookingglass debut, are both lovely and elegant.
As with most every production by this illustrious company, the cast is spectacular and multitalented. Boyish-looking Travis Turner, so magnetic in Steppenwolf’s recent production of “The Flick,” is a likable, sympathetic Thaddeus. Agile and multiskilled, Mr. Turner breaks the audience’s heart as a talented young man battling prejudice while falling for the lovely, silver-toned Monica Raymund, as Isabella. Handsome Samuel Taylor is a nimble, fast-talking, fleet-footed Slocum, the son of an Irish immigrant who drives the duo. Add to this threesome the talents of a hardworking, versatile ensemble, all playing multiple roles. They include many talents of Molly Brennan, Sharriese Hamilton, Raymond Fox, Lawrence E. Distasi, Adam Wesley Brown and Tosin Morohunfola.
This is a fascinating historical play with music, not quite as acrobatic as their “Lookingglass Alice,” nor as poetic as “Moby Dick” (which will receive a remount later this season). Yet it entertains with its versatility, as well as its look at an era when racial prejudice was at the forefront of the entertainment industry. This show could be a prequel to Broadway’s terrific new musical, “Shuffle Along,” while it also serves to shed some light on a little-known chapter of Chicago history that needs to be experienced. The characters may be fictional, but the story is authentic. It’s all there in black and white.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 1-August 14 by Lookingglass Theatre at the Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-337-0665 or by going to www.lookingglasstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.