By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ, Chicago Crusader
To touch on one of the items brought up in a recent letter to the editor, “Why are we whining about the Oscars?” submitted by Penny Franklin, I wanted to offer my thoughts about a couple of plays and events that are running in the Chicago area, which involve majority Black casts, Black headliners and, in one case, a Latino-themed play at the Goodman Theatre.
“Sunset Baby” by playwright Dominique Morisseau
“Sunset Baby,” which I have covered previously, is an explosive play that tells the story of Nina, who was named in honor of the civil rights/Black liberation activist Nina Simone. In the play, Nina has never known her father and her mother has recently passed away. Nina learns that she has in her possession letters that her late mother wrote to her father, but her father never found time to address them, as he was in prison. Nina says that academia and magazines have been hounding her to sell these important letters (sort of like the late Coretta Scott King selling the letters that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have written her).
When Nina’s father learns about the letters, he attempts to curry her favor in an effort to get them from her. Nina is one bad sister, and she takes no stuff off of anyone, including her father. She works as a “woman of the eve- ning,” however, the audience never sees her with a client. She and her boyfriend who deals drugs work together presumably to rob Nina’s clients. They have this grand plan to move out of the country when they can save up 10 stacks ($10,000).
Nina is betrayed by the world, in her opinion, but she doesn’t let this get her down; she just recognizes it and moves on. In the opening scene, she seductively applies lotion to her thighs, which are cloaked in thigh-high boots, and she pushes up her “oiled” breasts for good measure before she goes out for the evening. This one scene captivates the audience and brings everyone into Nina’s world.
The story unfolds with a tug of war between Nina and her father and Nina and her boy- friend, as well, for possession of the letters. When her father finds that he’s unsuccessful in gaining any traction with Nina, he searches out her boyfriend to see if he’s able to lure the letters away from her. What transpires is about two hours of Nina’s both internal and external struggles with whom she has become, even in the face of NOT having a father and where she really wants to end. Playwright Dominique Mor-isseau has directed a few other high-energy, fascinating plays. Sunset Baby runs until April 10 at Timeline Theatre.
“Hairspray” with E Faye Butler
“Hairspray” is the classic story based on the John Waters’ hit movie about a segregated television dance show that airs in Baltimore in the 1960s, with the white kids dancing their hearts out to Black music.
Tracy Turnblad is a plus-size teen, with plus-size hair, and one big plus-size dream – to dance her way onto Baltimore’s hit TV show, “The Corny Collins Show.”
On the other side of town, Motormouth Maybelle, play- ed by the incomparable and talented E. Faye Butler, runs a record shop, and things are about to shake up when she and Tracy join forces.
Hairspray is a sort of “protest play” that brings Blacks and whites together in a show of unity, and it has a great soundtrack. It is playing through February 21 at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, and it’s worth the trip to see Butler is all her theatrical glory.
“Another Word for Beauty” showcases Latinas
“Another Word for Beauty” is a play inspired by true events that is a music-and-movement-filled new play by Academy Award nominee José Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) with original songs by Grammy winner Héctor Buitrago (of the Latin band Aterciopelados).
Each year, the female inmates at a Bogotá, Colombia, prison compete in a beauty pageant intended by their jailers to motivate and rehabilitate them. While the pageant’s parade of glamorous gowns, exotic headdresses and rhythmic dances provides a distraction from daily suffering, its real impact on each woman is more than skin deep.
This play presents the female prison inmates in vulnerable situations, as they each open up with their personal backgrounds; some sharing just how they ended up incarcerated. One woman is inconsolably upset, after her son has to leave her after staying with her after her delivery. At a certain age, the children have to leave their mothers.
“Another Word for Beauty” shows the sensitive side to women who may be pretending to be tough. But the play also examined conditions in the prison that some of the women wanted to use to their advantage, instead of primping around for a beauty contest.
“Another Word for Beauty” runs until February 21 at the Goodman Theatre.
A free upcoming event that pays tribute to the late playwright August Wilson is the Hyde Park Bank High School Performance Festival, set for Friday, February 19, at 5:30 p.m. at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E 60th St. This free event includes performances from the August Wilson Century Cycle and scenic design presentations by local South Side high school students. Doors open and scenic design exhibition at 5:30 p.m.; performances at 6:00 p.m.; reception with food and awards ceremony at 8:00 p.m. Reservations encouraged.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book information http://tinyurl.com/om4hvgo or email: [email protected].