The Crusader Newspaper Group

Great Chicago theatre brings 2016 to an end

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader

East Texas Hot Links

A play that premiered years ago and has been restaged dozens of times is playing at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe. “East Texas Hot Links” is directed by Ron O J Parson and presents the ugly head of racism in another format. It is interesting that the details of the play are so timely, but racism doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Writers Theatre Resident Director Parson, who directed past Writers Theatre hits “The Caretaker” and “The Old Settler,” staged a critically acclaimed and deeply impactful production of this riveting play for Chicago’s Onyx Theatre Ensemble nearly two decades ago. He now revisits this powerful tale of friendship and heroism that remains intensely relevant in today’s America.

In the woods of East Texas, the Top o’ the Hill Café offers comfort, solace and companionship for the regulars who come in each night. However, it is the summer of 1955, and times are changing, and in the face of oppressive Jim Crow laws, seven strong-willed locals join forces to protect one of their own—until the unthinkable catches them by surprise, changing life at Top of the Hill forever.

This was a great play, and all of the cast members performed wonderfully. The play, sadly, explores friendships and betrayals during the Jim Crow era and often pits brother against brother. “East Texas Hot Links” runs until January 22 at the Writers Theatre, which is located at 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe , IL .

ENSEMBLE MEMBER Tom Irwin, as Pastor Paul, and Glenn Davis, as Associate Pastor Joshua, have a heart to heart chat about the new direction of the church in a scene fromThe Christians. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.

The Christians

“The Christians” is a play whose content reminded me of the issues facing the Rev. Carlton Pearson, who headed a mega church in Los Angeles, but who recently started a new church in the Chicago area. “The Christians” explores spirituality and whether there is, in fact, a heaven. The play is enjoying its premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, and the sentiments of the long-term pastor, who has successfully moved his church out of the confines of a small facility into a larger location, are at odds with many of the church members. He announces during one of his sermons that he thought that someone who had done a good deed during the last hours of his life would enter the gates of Heaven, even though he had not professed his sins and accepted the Lord as his savior.

The play opened up with the actual choir who was part of the cast performing a few songs, and then the pastor takes over—beginning a play that is actually presented within a church service. The beginning of the play can be hard for some to take.

“Having no knowledge about the play, from the title, I expected a play that would reflect the clear message of the life of a Christian in alignment with scripture. However, I must say, at the very beginning of the play, I was appalled and caught off-guard when the actor, Pastor Paul, opened up basically apologizing to his mega-church congregation for preaching the Gospel according to scripture for so many years,” said Pastor Olivia Johnson of Generational Blessings Worship Center in Chicago Heights. “I became red-flag alarmed (and wondered if I was in the right place) as Pastor Paul further shared that he would be moving the church in a new direction toward a new inclusive ideology — one that clearly goes against scripture. I wondered why then is this play titled ‘The Christians’?”

As the play progressed, however, things became much clearer. “Heart racing, I became more attentive and soon was at ease when I realized that the premise of the play is that of a pastor who changes his theological message from Christian truth to the fallacy of inclusiveness, teaching that all people would go to Heaven, no matter how they lived on earth, and that Hell does not exist, only to realize as his church emptied out, that true Christians are committed to following the truth, even if it means having to leave a church and pastor they love, when truth is no longer preached. Thus, it was a fascinating experience, as the message became ultimately clear. The singing was phenomenal and spirit-filled. The setting was so much like church that I found myself both observing and comfortably participating, simultaneously. I enjoyed it so much so that I would take delight in seeing it again,” Pastor Johnson said.

Another theatre-goer and Washington University in St. Louis Divinity student Jeongeun Jay Kim embraced the play this way: “I loved the story line of the play, since it was relevant to the current issue of inclusiveness and yet represented my faith tradition. I particularly enjoyed how the play channeled the distance between the audiences and the actors. Sometimes you felt like you were in the play and the next moment you felt the distance where you are observing the scene. That dynamic made me constantly feel with them and yet have my personal space to reflect various interactions in which the actors were involved. Overall, it was an amazing play.”

“The Christians” runs until January 29, at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., and is directed by Ensemble member K. Todd Freeman.

Hamilton: An American Musical

Well, not much has to be written about “Hamilton: An American Musical” to persuade folks to get their hands on any tickets in an affordable price range. The production lives up to all the hype that had preceded it before it arrived at Chicago’s PrivateBank Theatre. It is a history lesson about the founding fathers and Alexander Hamilton in particular. But it is a multi-faceted, multi-cultural fantastic spectacle that even in a cold theater did not seem to run too long at more than two and one-half hours in duration.

George Washington is played by a tall, Black man, and Thomas Jefferson was also played by a Black man who had so much swagger-seeming to echo what has been shared about him through the history books.

Based on the life of the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury, the musical Hamilton gives a modern spin to the story of one of the country’s most prominent founding fathers. This innovative musical was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Tony Award winner “In the Heights,” and it tells of Alexander Hamilton’s rise to political power through a contemporary blend of hip-hop, rap, and R&B. Since its premiere in 2015, Hamilton has inspired theater lovers across the country with adored songs like “My Shot,” “Satisfied,” and “The Schuyler Sisters.” The soundtrack to the musical is a show-stopper, as well.

“Hamilton: An American Musical” is enjoying a run well into next Spring at the PrivateBank Theatre, located at 18 W. Monroe St.


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