Cheryl Coons: “Wait ‘til next year.” For Chicago Cubs fans, that phrase used to be shorthand for the annual heartbreak, as the team repeatedly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory during playoff season. The infamous 108-year “curse” of the Cubs was lifted in 2016 when the team won the World Series, and a new musical about that moment, Miracle, with a score by Michael Mahler and book by Jason Brett, premiered in May 2019 at the Royal George Theatre. This was Mahler’s first of two major world premiere musicals this season. His second was The Secret of My Success, co-written with Alan Schmuckler, GORDON GREENBERG, and STEVE ROSEN, which opened at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora in February, and abruptly closed in March due to social distancing restrictions.
In this strange season, when the topics of curses and miracles are part of public conversation in less lighthearted ways, and when the theatre community is clinging to hope for a 2020/2021 comeback, “Wait ‘til next year” has additional resonance. Chicago Ambassadors Dolores Díaz and Derek McPhatter and I discussed some of the works that debuted this season, as well as those that were casualties of COVID-19.
So…what stood out to you this season? (Besides the obvious craziness of the pandemic.) Any general themes?
Dolores Díaz: What really stood out for me was seeing Latinx stories showcased by regional theatres and cool storefronts in a way I haven’t always seen in the past, in addition to the Latinx company strongholds that continued their amazing and often underrated work.
Derek McPhatter: A theme that really stood out to me was heightened awareness around police violence in Black communities. Quite a few new works this season explored different perspectives on this challenging context.
Cheryl Coons: For me, it was exciting to see companies that have previously produced mainstays of the dramatic canon innovating in ways that fit their missions, as well as major productions of several new musicals.
Dolores Díaz: World premieres from ISAAC GÓMEZ centered on Mexican American identity, sexuality, and relationships in the modern world, and included I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, a Steppenwolf-commissioned adaptation of the novel by the same name and The Leopard Play, or Sad Songs for Lost Boys at Steep Theatre.
Cheryl Coons: I saw a terrific reading of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Steppenwolf was planning to tour the show to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in partnership with Storycatchers Theatre, where I’m a program manager. The kids were so excited about the play coming in. That cancellation was an enormous loss, from so many points of view.
Derek McPhatter: So many points of view indeed. On stage and off stage in detention centers, schools, parks, this season was poised to truly reflect our city’s diverse creative community.
Dolores Díaz: RYAN OLIVEIRA’s Desire in a Tinier House world premiered at Pride Films and Plays and was the second of Oliveira’s plays to see a world production by a Chicago company in 2019. The two-hander tells a dystopian love story between men in visceral, poetic styles.
Urban Theater Company’s season included Back in the Day by Miranda González. An adaptation from Jose Echevarria’s book, The Real Dance Fever, the show is set at the height of Chicago’s street dancing era of the 1980s. Of course, Chicago audiences love stories about Chicago.
Derek McPhatter: We do indeed, even unsettling stories like Chicago-native Sandra Bland’s mysterious death in police custody, which inspired korde arrington tuttle’s Graveyard Shift at the Goodman. And 16th Street Theater produced LOY WEBB’s His Shadow, which highlighted similar themes, inspired by social protest from sports figures like Colin Kaepernick.
Cheryl Coons: MADELYN SERGEL wrote a great piece for The Dramatist Blog about the truncated run of her play Conversations About an Empty Suit at Three Brothers Theatre in Waukegan. And TINA FAKHRID-DEEN’s Pulled Punches was to be produced by MPAACT and the Greenhouse Theater in April and has been postponed. Did either of you have work that was postponed or cancelled?
Derek McPhatter: When COVID hit, I was working as a dramaturg at Redtwist Theatre’s production of Rabbit Summer by TRACEY CONYER LEE. Once again, protesting racialized police violence was a big theme. Sorry it got cut short as our audiences were finding resonances with other work they’d seen in Chicago.
Dolores Díaz: I also had work affected. I’d been working with Shattered Globe since December to develop a show that was to go up in April. Metamorphic follows Greg Samsa and a series of disappearances that redefine what it means to adapt in a period of American turmoil, so, yeah ...
Cheryl Coons: Of all the times when we need a play about adapting during a period of turmoil….
Derek McPhatter: I must say I’ve never seen turmoil quite like Stupid Shakespeare’s Super Richard World 3, a video-game inspired adaptation of Richard III, penned by Katie Ruppert, produced by Otherworld Theatre Company. I was happy to see the company added the show to their streaming channels as part of their COVID-19 pivot.
Cheryl Coons: Stupid Shakespeare…
Dolores Díaz: Lol. It’s interesting. I know of at least one other adaptation of Richard III that had just opened at Theatre Wit when shelter-in-place went into effect and they took it streaming. I wonder what it is about the current moment and Machiavellian-ing.
Cheryl Coons: I wonder….
Dolores Díaz: In any case, I was surprised to see a willingness to take a chance when it comes to form. Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., a dubbed performance that features original interviews, recounts a real-life abduction. The play premiered at Goodman Theatre, further cementing Chicago’s place as a testing ground for novel work.
Lindiwe, by ERIC SIMONSON with music by Ladysmith Black Mambazo premiered at Steppenwolf as their third collaboration. The experimental musical was one of Martha Lavey’s last requests of the new Artistic Director, Anna Shapiro.
Cheryl Coons: I love that idea of Chicago being a testing ground. With 250 theatre companies in our community, there’s a lot of experimentation, as companies try to find their share of the market.
Derek McPhatter: I love that too. And our shelter-in-place order hit as I was negotiating a few developmental opportunities that have stalled now. But my fingers are crossed for a workshop of a new play with music at Prop Thtr this autumn. We’re already exploring options for migrating the entire developmental process to a virtual setting, which I must admit doesn’t excite me.
Dolores Díaz: I get that. I was in similar conversations before decision-makers opted to cancel rather than try to take things virtual. *Sighs* *Pours one out*
Cheryl Coons: I’ll drink to that!
Derek McPhatter: Oh, I thought we already started drinking.
Dolores Díaz: I think we should also take a moment to pour one out for those writers that would have had their first-ever world premieres had it not been for COVID-19. *pours another out* Please excuse my moment of longing; there was, of course, some great work done before the season was cut short. Let’s see…FOUAD TEYMOUR’s Twice, Thrice, Frice received its world premiere from Silk Road Rising.
Derek McPhatter: One play I was excited to have premiere in Chicago was The First Deep Breath by LEE EDWARD COLSTON II at Victory Gardens. The play took the conventions of the great American family drama and updated them for a contemporary African American family with plenty of juicy secrets and resentments!
Dolores Díaz: People raved about that show.
Cheryl Coons: Remy Bumppo commissioned new work for the first time in its 23-year history: Howards End by DOUGLAS POST, from the novel by E.M. Forster. Another great adaptation premiered at Writer’s Theatre: SANDRA DELGADO’s and Michael Halberstam’s A Doll’s House.
Dolores Díaz: We’re seeing a number of adaptations from books and interpretations of classic plays. Originals include the world-premiere of the holiday show Cold Town/Hotline by playwright-director ELI NEWELL at Raven and the play N by DAVID ALEX in a co-production by GLP Productions and Greenhouse Theater.
Cheryl Coons: I feel lucky that we got to see two new musicals by Michael Mahler this season, but I was disappointed that Goodman Theatre had to cancel The Outsiders, book by ADAM RAPP, score by Justin Levine, Jonathan Clay, and Zach Chance (Jamestown Revival). Chicago Shakespeare Theater also cancelled Blue, JEANINE TESORI and Tazewell Thompson’s new opera, which was to be co-produced with Lyric Unlimited, of Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Even with cancellations and postponements, our theatre community has remained engaged. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre organized a city-wide effort, where artists who normally design and build costumes for the stage were employed to stitch more than 5,000 masks for area health care workers. Theatre scene shops across the city donated their protective gear, including goggles and N95 masks, to area hospitals.
Rather than waiting ‘til next year for a miracle, Chicago theatre artists are doing our best to make our own. That’s the spirit that built this city of ensembles.
I’ll drink to that! And one for Mahler!