The Black Ensemble Theater is known for its jukebox musicals about African-American musical giants—Etta James, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone. But the subjects of The Black White Love Play are a journalist and a lawyer: Roger Ebert, longtime film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and his wife, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, an attorney who left her law career to manage Ebert’s business ventures. Roger was the first film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize, a world-famous TV pundit and author of dozens of books. Chaz, a former civil rights attorney, is a shrewd businesswoman who helped parlay Roger’s celebrity into a multimedia miniempire; she’s also a philanthropic supporter of education and arts organizations including the Art Institute, After School Matters, and yes, the Black Ensemble. Roger and Chaz were a Chicago power couple until Roger’s death in 2013, at age 70, following a long battle with cancer.
For playwright-director Jackie Taylor, Chaz and Roger are the inspiring embodiment of a love that defies social prejudice. Roger was white, Chaz is black. No one I know ever challenged that or found it surprising—Roger was a passionate and vocal supporter of liberal principles—but Taylor’s play suggests that there was backlash, with Roger’s white friends and Chaz’s black friends expressing negative reactions to their marriage. Interestingly, the show extends its championship of interracial marriage to same-sex marriage equality as well.
This unabashedly sentimental and celebratory pageant employs poetic choral speaking, simple dance, and lots of music to give the Eberts’ story a universal resonance. The musical selections—performed by a gifted six-member “Greek chorus” and crack band under the musical direction of drummer Robert Reddrick—range from an aria from Tosca (the opera Roger and Chaz saw on their first date) to easy-listening selections by the Bee Gees, the Carpenters, Chicago, and Lionel Richie, along with “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca, which Roger once dubbed “The Movie.” The show climaxes with Chaz herself (the excellent Rashada Dawan) belting out a heart-on-the-sleeve rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”—a prayer for strength after Roger’s death.
Kevin Pollack’s portrayal of Roger is on target: stiff and stolid, earnest and self-deprecating. Pollack movingly conveys the boundless, boyish joy that Roger, a longtime bachelor who married at age 50, found in embracing Chaz’s world, including a large, close-knit family and the black church, with its rousing musical tradition—infectiously conveyed here in gospel selections ranging from Hezekiah Walker’s “I Feel Your Spirit” to the classic hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” to Taylor’s original anthem “No Matter What Race.” In The Black White Play, the message comes through loud and clear: Chaz and Roger Ebert’s love helped each of them face down trials ranging from racism to death itself. v