During 2020, my running joke was that, although there weren’t any plays happening, there was always plenty of drama to report on in Chicago theater. In fall of 2021, we started seeing some theater return, though the season was cut short by last December’s COVID surge. (Not to be confused with the one we’re currently in, which apparently we’ve decided collectively to just pretend isn’t happening.) This year, most theaters returned to full seasons, even if they sometimes focused on fewer productions in the season, smaller casts, and shorter runs to hedge their financial bets. (The Jeff Committee recognized the reality of the latter by creating awards for short-run productions—nine to 17 performances. No word on whether the Jeffs will keep that category for next year, but it was nice to see shows like About Face Theatre’s The Magnolia Balletand Congo Square’s What to Send Up When It Goes Downget their due.)
This year was filled with several profound experiences onstage: I missed the initial run of Congo Square’s production of Aleshea Harris’s ritual/play about confronting racism and police violence (among other urgent topics) last spring, so was glad when Lookingglass brought it back this fall. I’d say the best pieces I saw this year all somehow addressed the need for community, healing, and listening, which is perhaps unsurprising after the long isolation of the pandemic.
Theatre Y and Marvin Tate brought us the immersive walking performance of Laughing Song in North Lawndale , which combined Tate’s own stories about growing up in the neighborhood with the biography of George W. Johnson, the first Black American recording artist. Steppenwolf Theatre finally opened its long-awaited, new Ensemble Theater (an in-the-round space upstairs in the company’s Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center) with Chekhov’s Seagull. But they really blew off the doors with J. Nicole Brooks’s galvanizing 1919, a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production adapted from Eve L. Ewing’s collection of poems on the Red Summer race riots that tied history into contemporary struggles against white supremacy. Youth-created theater was also pretty damn inspiring this year, with both Free Street’s 57 Blocksand Albany Park Theater Project’s Homecominginstilling joy and gratitude in my soul for the younger generation of artists and activists.
1919 was codirected by Gabrielle Randle-Bent and Tasia A. Jones. Randle-Bent also took the reins as associate artistic director at Court Theatre—one of several promotions and changes in leadership that continued to ripple through the scene. Susan V. Booth took over as artistic director at the Goodman after the 35-year tenure of Robert Falls. Braden Abraham, formerly the AD of Seattle Rep, will be the new artistic director for Writers Theatre in February. Cody Estle moved on from Raven to Milwaukee, and Redtwist announced new leadership as well, including new AD Dusty Brown. Meanwhile, Redtwist’s fellow Edgewater theater Steep moved into a new building and got a huge grant from the city, which undoubtedly can be credited in large part to departing executive director Kate Piatt-Eckert’s efforts. Mica Cole returned to Chicago as TimeLine Theatre’s new executive director just as the company moves forward with their new space in Uptown, slated to open in early 2024. (TimeLine’s current production of Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind was one of my favorites this fall. It closes this weekend, and if you can get a ticket, go!)
Karla Estela Rivera, the executive director for Free Street, moved on to become the first executive director for Arts Administrators of Color, while Marissa Lynn Ford took charge at the League of Chicago Theatres. But it wasn’t all rosy for Black theater leaders: Lanise Antoine Shelley, who was named artistic director for House Theatre in March of 2021, lost that job when the company’s board decided they couldn’t continue operations. Shelley only got to stage two productions before House folded, ending its 21-year run.
Speaking solely for myself, it seems to me that there should have been more support given to the first Black artistic director in House history to take the company in a new direction after the pandemic. The biggest story of the year was the upheaval at Victory Gardens, which marked the end of the Tony-winning theater and longtime incubator of new work as a presenting organization. (We’ll have a lot more on that tangled story in next week’s issue.) But there again, Black artistic director Ken-Matt Martin was let go by the board (followed by the firing of all the remaining staff) without being allowed to finish a full season after the pandemic shutdown.
The final countdown: Demetra Dee in Ericka Dickerson-Despenza’s cullud wattah, the last show produced at Victory Gardens. Credit Liz Lauren
The Victory Gardens situation was made even worse because the last show on its mainstage, cullud wattah by Ericka Dickerson-Despenza (directed by Lili-Anne Brown, whose national profile seems to be growing deservedly larger every year), was an absolutely gutting and gorgeous piece about a family of Black women in Flint, Michigan during the water crisis. Dickerson-Despenza’s play was a reminder of how urgently we need theaters like Victory Gardens that foster and nurture new voices.
Some other theaters that said goodbye this year (though with less conflict than the VG situation) were Underscore, Eclipse, and Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater. First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook is also ceasing operations later in 2023. But other companies moved forward with plans for new buildings; in addition to TimeLine and Steep, American Blues Theater and Northlight are in the process of establishing new addresses (in the case of the latter, moving from Skokie back to their original hometown of Evanston). Rhapsody Theatre opened in the space formerly occupied by the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park, with an emphasis on magic, comedy, and music. And iO, presumed dead for good in 2020, reopened with new owners, new management, and new promises to do better at creating a supportive space for improv and sketch artists.
Losing companies can be sad, but the biggest losses we saw this year were of people. In 2022, we said goodbye to Marshall Bean, David Lee Bradke, Richard Christiansen, Michael Jeffrey Cohen, Danny Goldring, Mike Hagerty, Lois Hall, John Harrold, Anne V. McGravie, Edward Murray McKay, Tony Mockus Sr., Larry Neumann Jr., Nichelle Nichols (the Star Trek legend got her start in Chicago), Susan Nussbaum, Lindsey Pearlman, Sharon Phillips, Hollis Resnik, Elizabeth Rich, Myrna Salazar, Estelle Goodman Spector, Angie Schoofs Stemberg, and Mary Ann Thebus.
You can read more about their lives at the Chicago Theater Bike Ride website. This annual event began in 2015 after a numbing wave of deaths struck the community. The ride raises funds for theater artists facing hardship, and it too encourages the spirit of community and healing. In my view, 2022 was a year both onstage and off that tried to be normal but really was anything but. (At the risk of being a broken record, please consider getting your boosters if you haven’t, and wear masks at shows if you can; this thing isn’t over yet.)
But going into 2023, I can’t think of any better New Year’s resolution than the motto adopted by the Theater Bike Ride organizers: Love hard.