Two photos. On the left a young white man in a gray sweater sits on the floor. A white woman in a burgundy dress kneels behind him, embracing him. The photo on the left is of playwright James Sherman, an older white man in a blue suit, shirt, and tie. He has graying darker hair.
Left: John Drea and Yourtana Sulaiman as Marc and Berta Chagall in Chagall in School. Right: James Sherman Credit: Courtesy James Sherman

James Sherman began his career as an actor; he joined the Second City in the 70s, while he was still a student at Illinois State, appearing in the shows Once More With Fooling and East of Edens with the likes of George Wendt, Tim Kazurinsky, and Miriam Flynn. But starting with his 1982 backstage play, Magic Time, which he began while getting his MFA in theater at Brandeis, Sherman shifted to playwriting. He has since written 16 plays and was a longtime member of the Victory Gardens playwrights ensemble, where much of his work was developed and performed. His latest play, Chagall in School, produced by Grippo Stage Company at Theater Wit, is a historical drama set in the early days of the Soviet Union. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jack Helbig: What was your initial inspiration for Chagall in School?

James Sherman: Well, I am going to put myself in the same company as another member of the original Victory Gardens playwrights ensemble, John Logan. John told the story that he saw an exhibit of Mark Rothko’s paintings at the Tate Modern in London, and that was what inspired him to write Red. I had the exact same experience, but I was in New York. There was an exhibit at the Jewish Museum called “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922.” Of course I knew who Chagall was, because in every Jewish home there’s a reprint of The Praying Jew. Malevich and Lissitzky I’d never heard of.

The story I discovered at the exhibit was that right after the Russian Revolution there was an interest in promoting culture. And there was a man named Anatoly Lunacharsky, who was People’s Commissar for Enlightenment for the Russian Federation. He asked Chagall to start an art school in Chagall’s hometown of Vitebsk. Lissitzky was one of the faculty members of the school, and Malevich showed up later. Malevich was promoting this new school called Suprematism.

I’m not sure how much I want to give you in the way of spoilers, but when Malevich shows up at Chagall’s school, he kind of takes over because he’s, like, the hot thing in town. At the same time, Chagall’s work was no longer fashionable.

Chagall in School
Through 10/8: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM (also Tue 9/6, 8 PM), Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150,, $38-$42

How close to historical events is the play?

I think I’m going to steal this epigram from William Goldman when he wrote the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. At the top of the movie, he says, “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.”

This is not your first foray into historical drama. [Sherman’s 2016 one-man play, The Ben Hecht Show, explores the life and work of the Chicago journalist, playwright, and screenwriter.] But you are primarily known for comedies, not historical dramas. Why the interest in writing a historical drama now?

I’m not into science fiction. But the thing they always say about science fiction is that it’s a way to explore current themes without confronting them directly. And I think I’m finding a way to do that using historical material.

What I learned [doing research on the play] was that Chagall and these other artists were in a great artistic, philosophical debate at the time about the kind of art that they should be making. [Just like today], particularly in the theater, there’s a lot of discussion about the kind of art we should be making.

Well, I have to think that as someone who was connected to Victory Gardens, that you must be thinking a lot these days about the clash of artistic styles and who controls things.

To me, it very often comes down to the tension in the kind of art we’re creating. Are we doing it from a place of authenticity, or are we doing it because we think it’s what’s going to fit the marketplace?

Is the ensemble of playwrights created by Victory Gardens former artistic director Dennis Začek still associated in some way with Victory Gardens?

There was little reach out from Chay Yew to the original ensemble. There was definite active reach out to the original ensemble from Ken-Matt Martin.

Which must now feel like a loss since he’s no longer in power. [Martin was released by the Victory Gardens board earlier this summer. The current playwrights ensemble resigned in protest and the remaining staff members are moving to unionize].

Yes, well, there’s a lot of feelings of loss going on.

Moving back to your play, Jewish identity is one of the ongoing themes in your work. How much of this story about Chagall is tied in with Jewish identity?

After the Russian Revolution, Lenin opens up the society in a way that I’m calling a Camelot-like period of time for the Jews in Russia, and Jewish artists in particular. That is until Stalin shows up and changes that.

What accounts for the deep connection between Chagall and American Jewish identity?

Well, I’ll give you two reasons. One is, I think just because his work is very approachable. Everybody in Chicago knows Chagall, whether they know it or not, right? Just like everybody knows Picasso, because we have the sculpture. Well, everybody has probably walked by the Chagall mosaic [Chagall’s Four Seasons at the Chase Tower Plaza, 10 S. Dearborn].

And the other thing is, even though a lot of American theater was created by Jewish artists, representation of Jewish life on Broadway didn’t really happen until Fiddler on the Roof. I found out that Jerome Robbins actually approached Chagall to ask him about doing the set design. He turned the job down but the original set design of Fiddler on the Roof by Boris Aronson was heavily influenced by Chagall. So even people who don’t know the name Chagall recognize the world of his work because everybody has seen Fiddler on the Roof.

What have you learned about Chagall in the process of writing this play?

That all great art, if it’s done well, looks easy, and it surely is not. Chagall [at the time of this play] was no longer in fashion. But he stayed true to his own voice. And for me, this is a real exercise for me to stay true to my own voice. Every so often, somebody says, “Jim, are you ever going to write a serious play?” And I say, “Well, all my plays are serious.” It’s like two painters—if they stand in front of a bowl of fruit, the paintings are going to look different depending on who’s doing the painting. This play is not written as a comedy, but it’s a James Sherman play, so it’s going to be a comedy. Whether or not you laugh is up to you.