By Jori Waldron
Black Ensemble Theater’s debut new show, The Black White Love Play, poignantly illustrating the story of Chaz and Roger Ebert’s life and love together, is a must-see for Chicagoland musical theatre patrons.
Written by Jackie Taylor, who started the BET 1976, wrote this play with the assistance of Chaz Ebert, incorporating some songs Taylor wrote herself along with many that meant something to the Eberts or explained their feelings at different points in their relationship. Taylor often writes stories based on real people because “people like to know the story behind the star.” She utilizes a Greek Chorus as a narrator and ensemble for the story.
Since Roger Ebert is well-known as a former Chicago Sun Times columnist, co-starred in a long-running television show with Gene Siskel and wrote many books, highlighting his life with theatrical performance makes sense. His marriage to an African-American woman makes BET the perfect place to perform it.
Above all, love abounds in this show. The cast continually emphasizes the message that people should not judge one another for who they choose to love, whether the relationship crosses races, ages or genders. This theme is driven home with Jackie’s original song “No Matter What Race,” which is sung several times throughout the performance with the audience joining in for the curtain call.
Rashada Dawan, who plays Chaz, does a spectacular job. Chaz Ebert, who was in the audience for the show’s opening, even spoke at the end to thank the cast and particularly to thank Dawan, whom she said “does a better me than me.” Taylor said she was comfortable having Chaz watch her own story on the stage since they had worked so closely together on the script, however, there was still a sense of nervousness in hoping she would like it. Dawan not only looks like Chaz, but she portrays her emotional journey with such heart shown through her amazing vocals. Her rendition of “Help Me Make it Through the Night” especially moved the opening perfomance’s audience as members couldn’t help but cry out in sympathy and support of her difficult circumstances.
Playing her husband Roger, Kevin Pollack also gives a very accurate performance in appearance, speech, and mannerisms.
The eight members of the Greek chorus add positively to the story with a lot of dancing (though sometimes it becomes a bit manic) and strong singing. Standout performances include Jhardon Dishon Miller singing Lionel Richie’s “Hello” in a tremendous falsetto voice, Matthew T. Payne singing part of “Tosca’s Opera” by Puccini and Rueben Echoles rapping “It Takes Two.” The women’s ensemble voices (Porsche King, Robbin Major, Jessica Seals, and Sally Staats), while weaker individually, is strong in ensemble numbers, such as “Too Much Heaven,” and “We’re in This Love Together.”
The costuming suits the production perfectly. Ruthanne Swanson gives the ensemble a number of costume changes, which has the female chorus members starting in shades of red and orange, moving to blue and green, then purple, later white and finally matching red dresses all of which are beautiful. In addition, Chaz’s garments seem like they could come straight out of the real Chaz’s closet as did Roger’s. All of the performers look glamorous and perfectly suited to their roles, including Chaz’s mother played by Qween Wicks, who adds a bit of humor to the performance.
The six-piece orchestra, which sits atop the highest riser at the back of the stage, also does a fantastic job accompanying the singers and adding heart and soul to the performance.
Religious undertones hover beneath many of the numbers and the themes in the performance. The Eberts loved gospel music, so several gospel numbers stir the crowd. Chaz also stressed that the two of them always believed in taking things “one day at a time,” which is how they struggled through Roger’s various battles with cancer, which eventually took his life.
The once-in-a-lifetime love portrayed by this couple makes audience members envy them as well as aspire to be like them. The Black White Love Play is an undeniable must-see.
“The Black White Love Play” plays through through November 15 at the Black Ensemble Theater, at 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago. Tickets are $55 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturday matinees and $65 on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees. They are available online here or by phone at (773) 769-4451.