We’re finally getting a taste of the usual winter weather, but that’s no reason to stay housebound. (Unless you’re being extra COVID-cautious, for which we don’t blame you!) But if you’re up for some cultural adventures, there are some great possibilities on tap the next couple of months. Chicago Theatre Week, sponsored every year by the League of Chicago Theatres and Choose Chicago, returns February 16-26 this year—and yes, that’s technically longer than a week. But that just means there are even more opportunities to take advantage of discounted tickets to theaters all over the Chicago area, along with dining deals at nearby restaurants. Black History Month also means that there are many shows geared toward showcasing Black artists (though of course their work is present all year on Chicago stages).
And since COVID is still present, be prepared to mask up at venues out of courtesy for your fellow patrons, even if face coverings aren’t required. Most venues have information about their COVID policies on their websites so you can check ahead.
DANCE (Irene Hsiao)
Steppenwolf’s Curatorial Residency Program, a new program for Chicago practitioners of performance to curate a two-week series, launches with work around, curated by Kara Brody and Amanda Maraist. Featuring Cat Mahari’s Blk Ark: the impossible manifestation, Tuli Bera’s Bangali Meye, and Drew Lewis’s Heavy Objects, the series offers artists the opportunity to develop their work with Steppenwolf’s space and technical resources and showcases work in various stages of development.
Brody and Maraist tailored the structure of the residency to respond to the needs of the artists. “I saw Cat do [Blk Ark] at Links for her Co-Mission show—I got chills,” says Maraist. “She’s a really embodied mover, and her wisdom about different vernaculars shows up in every aspect of what she’s doing—in the projection, in her movement, in the set design—all of it. She’s also booked and blessed, so she’s using minimal time in the space—just a tech/dress day and two shows. Tuli wanted time to rehearse, so she’ll have the first week, all day in the theater.”
Bera will redevelop a work also initially incubated in a Links Co-Mission residency—“it’s dance, storytelling, she and her sister are cooking onstage, there’s a scent element—and she’ll have two less formal showings with some lighting and that’s it. Drew did a ten-minute showing of his work at Lumber Studios in Pilsen—now he’s developing the work into a full-length evening show and will use the time as a technical residency—because the artists get time with Steppenwolf’s technical crew. All these artists are showing work at very different points in development. We’re excited to present these works on a level playing field, to say, this is all of equal importance for you to see as an audience.” 2/4-2/12: Mahari is featured Sat 2/4 8 PM and Sun 2/5 3 PM; Bera is featured Thu-Fri 2/9-2/10 8 PM; Lewis is featured Sat 2/11 8 PM, and Sun 2/12 7 PM; Steppenwolf 1700 Theater, 1700 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $12-$40
New Music/New Dance
Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition and DanceWorks Chicago cocurate an evening of premieres by four collaborative teams: choreographer Brian Enos/composer Justin Weiss, choreographer Noelle Kayser/composer Ania Vu, choreographer Brandon DiCriscio/composer Benjamin Martin, and choreographer Marc Macaranas/poet Victoria Flanagan/composer Paul Novak. Paired by a “virtual speed date,” each team will present a new work in the intimate Logan Penthouse. Novak—who initiated contact with DanceWorks in 2022 and who is creating “a ghost story through a queer lens” with Macaranas and Flanagan—notes, “Each team had a completely different style of collaboration and process: for some, the dance came first, for others, the music, and others worked on them simultaneously and together.”
“The concept for our piece came from text that Ania wrote as the basis of her original composition,” says Kayser of her collaboration with Vu. “Pulling from themes of struggling to communicate, cross-culture peace offerings, and reclamation of voice—we developed a comic book-type narrative of an advanced alien species crash landing on earth. To survive they’re going to try and say hi.” Adds Vu, “There are two musical processes that happen throughout the piece: from gibberish vocal sounds to those that sound like actual words, and from unpitched and percussive sounds to pitched and melodic. These gradual transformations mirror the process of aliens slowly learning English and befriending humans despite the language and ‘cultural’ barriers.”
In addition to working with each other, some teams have looked outward to other media for inspiration—both music and dance were “inspired by a painting by Norman Lewis called Untitled in Blue and Black,” says Enos of his collaboration with Weiss. “Working with the score was a fun challenge. The music has large sections of unpunctuated drone-like sounds from the bass, and I tried to create moments of rhythm with the dancers and movement within those stretches of soundscape while still creating a cohesive feel between the movement and music. The DanceWorks dancers, as always, were wonderful to work with, and very game to experiment with different ideas.” 3/24, Logan Center for the Arts Performance Penthouse, 915 E. 60th St., https://cccc.uchicago.edu/concerts-events/new-musicnew-dance, free for students, $20 general admission
OPERA (Deanna Isaacs)
The brightest spots in this winter opera season are all about new work, starting with this Lyric Opera commission. The Factotum is a soul opera created by multitalented baritone (and Ryan Center alum) Will Liverman and his equally versatile arts high school buddy, musician/producer DJ King Rico, with help on the book from director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Inspired by Rossini’s early 19th-century comic opera The Barber of Seville, but set in a contemporary south-side Chicago barber shop, it features a mix of styles ranging from gospel and R&B, to rap, hip-hop, and “classic barbershop quartet,” and promises an upbeat redefinition of opera. 2/3-2/12, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, lyricopera.org, $35-$125
The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing
A 2019 workshop performance of this biographical opera by composer Justine F. Chen and librettist David Simpatico left me eager to see the finished work. As I wrote then, even in its still-developing state, The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing was revelatory: “. . . worthy of the man who invented the modern computer and facilitated the Allied victory in World War II by breaking the German military’s secret code—only to be prosecuted and chemically castrated by British authorities for homosexual activity.” Baritone Jonathan Michie, memorable in the title role, returns for this Chicago Opera Theater world premiere. 3/23-3/24, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, chicagooperatheater.org, $25-$165
Another eagerly-anticipated Lyric Opera commission, this trio of short new works by three high-profile composer/librettist teams aims to address major themes of contemporary life: technology-driven isolation, gun violence, and our profound connection to our threatened planet. The Walkers has a score by composer/violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain and a libretto by playwright/actor Anna Deavere Smith; Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and librettist Caroline Shaw teams with writer Jocelyn Clarke for Four Portraits; and a poem by the late Alaskan writer John Haines is set by sounds-of-nature-master John Luther Adams in Night. Uber-innovative Detroit Opera artistic director (and Chicago native) Yuval Sharon, who brought his parking-garage Wagner project, Twilight: Gods, to the Millennium Park underground garage in 2021, directs. 3/24-4/8, Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Upper Wacker, lyricopera.org, $40-$330
THEATER AND COMEDY (Kerry Reid)
Inspired in part by A Raisin in the Sun, Micah Ariel Watson’s play about Ariel, a “hopeless romantic” who realizes she loves her best friend, Kofi, gets a world premiere with Definition under McKenzie Chinn’s direction. Ariel makes a pilgrimage to Ghana to confess her love for Kofi and finds that it’s a journey to explore “the gray space of being neither fully African nor fully American.” Definition is working to build their new performance space and community center in Woodlawn. Meantime, this production is being staged at The Revival, usually the home of sketch and improv, located at the spot where the Compass Players first started offering improvisational games under the direction of Paul Sills, who would go on to cofound The Second City. 2/3-2/26, the Revival, 1160 E. 55th St., definitiontheatre.org, $20
Dance Like There Are Black People Watching: A Black Excellence Revue
Speaking of Second City: the UP Comedy Club presents an all-new show created by Black writers and performers (including Kennedy Baldwin, Karl Bradley, Arlieta Hall, Spencer Hodges, Adonis Holmes, and Jason Tolliverto) to run for Black History Month and beyond. Rob Wilson, whose previous credits include The SuperAfroWavyDrippyExtraBrillantDope Show at Second City and Shamilton with musical improvisation stalwarts Baby Wants Candy, directs. 2/3-4/1, UP Comedy Club, 230 W. North, 312-337-3992, secondcity.com, $29-$59
Trial in the Delta: The Murder of Emmett Till
Collaboraction created a teleplay out of the actual court transcripts for the trial of the white men accused (and acquitted) of kidnapping and brutally murdering Black Chicago teenager Emmett Till in Sumner, Mississippi, in 1955. It premiered on NBC5 last February as part of anchor Marion Brooks’s investigative series, The Lost Story of Emmett Till. That version won a 2022 Chicago/Midwest Emmy Award for “Human Interest—Long Form.” Now co-adapters G. Riley Mills and Willie Round, along with codirectors Anthony Moseley and Dana Anderson, bring it to the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center for a fully produced live staging. The script still uses only the words uttered during the actual (sham) trial of Till’s killers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, including those from Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, and his uncle, Mose Wright. (Actors depicting those characters and others will be seated among the live audience.) Each performance will be followed by a “Crucial Conversation” introduced by Pilar Audain, associate director for Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) Greater Chicago. 2/9-2/19, DuSable Black History and Education Center, 740 E. 56th Pl., collaboraction.org, $30-$55
Right to Be Forgotten
Raven presents the Chicago premiere of Sharyn Rothstein’s 2019 drama about a young man, Derril Lark, whose past questionable behavior as a teenager is preserved on the Internet, causing problems for him personally and professionally. When he tries to get that history scrubbed with the help of a civil rights lawyer who is bent on taking on big tech companies, he’s forced to confront the actual consequences of that behavior and not just the damage to his online reputation. Sarah Gitenstein directs. (Rothstein’s By the Water, set in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, played at Northlight Theatre in 2017, directed by former Raven artistic director Cody Estle.) 2/9-3/26, Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, $30-$40 (students, active military, and veterans $15)
After a 2021 outing with Goodman’s New Stages Festival, Martin Yousif Zebari’s multigenerational drama (inspired in part by the playwright’s own family and their journey from Baghdad to Skokie) is now the first world premiere by a SWANA (South West Asian and North African) writer to get a full production at the Goodman. Sivan Battat directs a cast of five; special events around the run of Layalina include a “SWANASA Community Night” (3/8), where Southwest Asian, North African, and South Asian community members are invited to gather for food and conversation ahead of the evening performance, and a talkback with Zebari and Battat will follow the show. 3/3-2/2, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $15-$45