By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
Legendary director Ron OJ Parson does such good work that he is currently in charge of two productions, one on the North Side and one in the Northern suburbs. He is directing “Apartment 3A” at the Windy City Playhouse in the Roscoe Village area, and a 20-year anniversary revival of East Texas Hot Links in Glencoe. His live theatre legacy runs many years, even when many productions were strictly geared toward white audiences or on the other hand toward Black audiences. Diversity is the word, now, since an audience member can see a Black woman playing one of the sisters in Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” or, as in “Hamilton,” a tall Black guy playing one of the founding fathers George Washington. “There is more diversity in casting at many theatres, now, and the audiences have grown since I moved to Chicago in 1994,” said Parson. “For instance, this year the Court Theatre has a well-rounded diverse season.”
Parson says he doesn’t necessarily pick the plays that he directs, but playwrights or theatres may seek out his expertise. “I usually don’t pick plays, they pick me. I wish I had the luxury of picking every play I direct,” he says. “At the Court, I have some input, of course, but usually the theatre has a play they want to do and they think it might be a good fit for me.”
He admits that a strong marketing plan also helps in making a production successful, but marketing has to be aimed at all segments of the theatre-going population. He says that a good director will bring the full experience to bear when working with a play and cast members. “No one wants to be pigeonholed and limited, and the fact that I am Black makes me a Black director, but I don’t just direct plays for people of color.” Parson stressed the importance of reality-based theatre productions. “We need to represent the world we live in. In order to attract younger audiences, diversity must be a part of the dynamic of theatre,” he said. “It opens up many opportunities that otherwise would be lost and neglected.”
Parson commented on today’s playwrights who are bringing good theatre in the manner of the late August Wilson. “Dominique Morisseau, Marcus Gardley, Katori Hall, Javon Johnson, Lydia Diamond and Keith Josef Adkins are a few of the notable playwrights.” Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby,” which Parson directed, was just recognized by the Joseph Jefferson Awards with its nomination of the lead actress, AnJi White. Parson attributes this recognition to the fact that “Sunset Baby” was “a good play with good direction, good writing and good actors.”
There are many challenges around directing, which include having the original vision and managing the entire production. “You also have to be persistent, have patience and perseverance,” Parson said. But he added that it is good to have fun in the process. He commented about the stability that being named Resident Artist at the Court Theatre in Hyde Park gives him. “This is rare for a freelance director, and there is more exposure on a regular basis,” he said. “I owe that to the Joyce Foundation,” which recently awarded a grant to the Court Theatre.
Parson has fond memories of directing “Let Me Live,” by OyamO, which he directed at the Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf at the same time. He has also directed more than 21 productions of August Wilson’s work, including “The Piano Lesson” at the inauguration of the Congo Square Theatre, an event which the late Wilson attended.
“Apartment 3A” follows Annie as she attempts to get her life back on track after a recent painful breakup and impulsive day at work, where she experiences a meltdown on live radio. And while the apartment may be the best find in town and the best apartment in the building, Annie can’t shake her bad day. She is met by a mysterious new neighbor, and she thinks things are turning around. But there’s more mystery to be unveiled, and the line between fantasy and reality gets thinner and thinner. Parson says the play presents one theory that “love is important in your life, and one should recognize it and embrace it, because it can change the world. “However, different people may get different messages from seeing the show, which is cool,” he added.
The play runs until December 18 at the Windy City Playhouse, located at 3014 W. Irving Park Ave. The recently opened theatre has a unique configuration. “It is a really fun and comfortable atmosphere from the second you walk in. There’s a nice bar with themed cocktails and a fire place,” Parson added. “There are comfy swivel seats that allow for very unique staging, since audience members can literally turn the seat. It gives me, as a director a lot freedom to really use the space.”
Parson has been acting since the 3rd grade and the bug continued to bite throughout high school in Buffalo, New York. He has the distinction of being the first American Black to direct at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. Parson is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s professional theatre program, and he is also Producing Artistic Director of the New Onyx Theatre Project. Other credits include working with the Black Ensemble Theatre, eta, Congo Square Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Writers Theatre (associate artist), Victory Gardens, Teatro Vista (associate artist), Chicago Dramatists, Urban Theatre Company, Steppenwolf Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Chicago Theatre Company, and City Lit Theatre.
And for those of you who may wonder just what “OJ” stands for, it’s Owen Jonathon, Parson said.