The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

On Stage: The New Biographies

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 21, 2006 9:22PM

Biographies adapted for the stage are rarely subject to the same scrutiny as literary bios or memoirs. It’s hard to imagine any playwright getting the James Frey treatment, discredited on national television and the blogosphere for bending the truth. And why should they? We go to the theater to understand the world but also to enjoy ourselves and find some degree of escape. To visit (or revisit) a fascinating life set to song can be a joy, and starting this week three theaters give us this opportunity.

Simonepic.jpgFew Chicago companies understand so well the challenges of adapting a life to the stage as the Black Ensemble Theater, who have made a veritable industry of staging such remarkable lives as Mahalia Jackson, Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, and Jackie Wilson. These productions are generally vehicles for talented actors/singers to recreate great performances, less concerned with telling an intricate story than bringing you back to the clubs and concert halls where they made their name. In the same vein is their latest tribute Nina Simone: The High Priestess Speaks, commencing an open-run in Uptown.

Ms. Simone’s voice is known and loved by millions, but she’s truly remarkable for writing and arranging her own genre-defying work while standing up to the persistent racism and injustice challenging her ambition. We’re certainly looking forward to this show. Chester M. Gregory II’s embodiment of Jackie Wilson at Black Ensemble was, in our humble estimation, one of the finest performances we’ve seen in Chicago or anywhere. We hope Yahdina U'Deen can bring similar resonance to the late Simone.

Jofinal.jpgIt’s safe to say very few theater patrons are alive who’d remember dancer and legendary entertainer Josephine Baker in her heyday. In Josephine Tonight!, premiering this week at The Theatre Building, writer Sherman Yellen focuses entirely on Ms. Baker’s moonshot to international fame, from a second class citizen in racially tense St. Louis to New York stardom to a Parisian diva. The show skims the surface of its heroine’s fascinating career, many romantic entanglements, and frequently evolving identity. It’s as much about how we remember the early 20th century than the period itself, and Wally Harper’s music evokes the era nicely, drawing on early American pop styles: ragtime, southern gospel, and jazz.

Mr. Yellen trades the more salacious details of Ms. Baker’s life for its universal truths—the squabbles with her mother, the impossibility of a long-distance relationship, the difficulty in reconciling your artistic dreams with cold hard reality, and the importance of standing by your friends and family. The brazen racial discrimination she faced seems like a slap in the face to a more enlightened, contemporary audience. Her exotic dancing seems less so today, although any era can appreciate her showmanship.

gertpic.jpgFrank Galati and Stephen Flaherty take a more impressionistic tack on the life of Gertrude Stein in Loving Repeating, produced by About Face Theater now playing at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Stein’s enigmatic life and marriage to Alice Toklas is brought to the stage, her hypnotic, repetitive poetry put to song in this new, tightened version of a musical first seen and workshopped at Northwestern. Here is their attempt to see the world through the mind who wrote the line “Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine mine and mine is my valentine.” It’s bound to be one of the most unusual musicals you’ll ever see.

Nina Simone: The High Priestess Speaks continues at Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N Beacon, Fridays - Sundays. Tickets are $35. More information at their website.

Josephine Tonight! continues at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W Belmont Ave, Fridays-Sundays and most Wednesdays through March 26. Tickets are $25-30. More information and performance schedule at their website.

Loving Repeating: A Musical of Gertrude Stein continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Ave, Wednesdays - Sundays through March 12, 2006. Tickets are $35-40. More information at the MCA's and About Face Theater's websites.

Photos via Paul Grigonis, Theatre Building Chicago; Peter Coombs, Black Ensemble Theater; MCA Chicago and About Face Theater.