Chicago theater has been forced to improvise. When COVID-19 caused Congo Square’s production of Douglas Turner Ward’s classic satire Day of Absence to close early, Charlique Rolle, the new managing director, led the company in exploring how they could adapt to the virtual realm. The result is a new online sketch comedy series, featuring a quartet of actors creating work in ensemble.
“Hit ‘Em on the Blackside is the spiritual successor of a show I directed in 2014 called Tales From the Blackside,” says show director Anthony Irons. “The show is inspired by Sam Roberson Jr., who was our former artistic director who passed away.” (Roberson died of pneumonia in 2017 at age 34.) Countless talented African American theatermakers have been nurtured at Congo Square, including the late Chadwick Boseman, whose play Deep Azure was produced there in 2005. Says Irons, “I would like to think that I am honoring them and what they have contributed.”
Though Congo Square has primarily produced dramatic works, comedy is embedded in its DNA, planted by Irons himself. “I was fortunate enough to stretch my acting as well as directing chops at the Second City.” That is also where Irons met his wife, Dionna Griffin-Irons, who served as the longtime director of diversity talent inclusion. During his tenure, Irons brought his creative homes together to workshop Tales From the Blackside. He says, “What do you get when you cross the irreverence of sketch comedy with the preeminent African American acting ensemble in Chicago? I thought it would be an interesting experiment.”
The experiment of directing for camera proved to be more daunting. “It is my first time directing film. A year ago I might not have been able to tell you the first thing about what to get in place to produce a film short.” Yet he was a quick study. HOTB‘s first episode, which began its development process in public webisodes in October, is available on the Congo Square website now. Subsequent biweekly webisodes will be released in easily digestible chunks on its Instagram and Facebook pages beginning in March. The second compilation of sketches will be posted in June.
For Congo Square ensemble member and HOTB cast member Kelvin Roston Jr., the transition has been a refreshing experience. “I am a dramatic actor. I take my hat off to comedians and comic actors, because this stuff is tough. Before Day of Absence, I had done Oedipus Rex at the Court Theatre, and prior to that, King Hedley II. I am pleased to be able to do this, it’s a departure from what I normally do.” However, don’t be fooled—this isn’t Roston’s first foray into comedy. “After I first moved here from Saint Louis, I was working at Navy Pier for the entertainment department. They had a whole pirate theme. My group was the Buccaneers and we had a fight choreography sketch comedy show that we did about five shows a day.”
Episode one of HOTB consists of a creative variety of premises, often steeped in themes of social justice, from a Zoom parent-teacher meeting, to a mock news show, to a science project with a twist. “Anthony came to us and asked all of us to pitch some ideas, then he had us come up with scripts for those. Of course he already had a great number of scripts already,” says Roston. “We had a Zoom writers’ room and we would meet and read over the scripts and give notes and adjustments.”
Working virtually presents a set of challenges for actors used to eye contact and physical connection. Says Roston, “The learning curve was . . . it wasn’t terrible, but it was a lot to learn quickly.” Roston’s household provided unique advantages for performing in this new reality. “One [cast member] is my wife, Alexis J. Roston. That was helpful during the pandemic time because we are quarantined together, we could shoot together. She is a comedic actor; it just comes out of her, it’s crazy to watch. She makes it look easy, where it is certainly not that way for me.”
Other cast members include Ronald Conner, a longtime friend of Roston’s. “We actually grew up in Saint Louis together. He also has ridiculous comedic chops, always has.” Cast member Tiffany Addison brought skills beyond her on-screen talent. Says Roston, “She is amazing onstage and has her own production company, and was instrumental in translating some of the scripts from stage into something that was more palatable for the screen.”
Perhaps the MVP of bringing this production together is Malcom Banks, who serves as director of photography, while also handling editing, sound, camera, and grip. Because he has a young child at home, he ran all of the technical components alone, for safety’s sake. HOTB isn’t Banks’s first time working with Congo Square. “I was just wrapping up my first feature film called 7vens Law. They gave me a call and I was happy to help. I was in the [Congo Square] production of Jitney and I played Youngblood. And I’ve been cool with everybody ever since.”
Banks’s journey from acting to film had an unexpected catalyst. “I had been a musician [trumpet], but then my younger cousin got murdered. I had a little stage fright before I got into all of this stuff, but after that happened, then I was never afraid. Your time is limited, there’s no reason to be afraid of anything.” For Banks, his connection with Congo Square has been creatively transformative. “I got introduced to August Wilson because of them. Then you have to do your research, and you find out that he’s the greatest writer that ever lived. Flat out. And the greatest writer that ever lived, he only talked about Black stories. When you hear that, that motivates you.”
Being a one-man crew provided some humorous learning experiences. “I was sitting there for a little bit on one particular shoot trying to get rid of a shadow, and—YouTube is your friend. Well, God bless it! I was lifting the light, I was lowering the light, pushing the light in, pushing the light out, but I simply just had to step away from the wall. I was sweating bullets, but we got it.”
While some theaters have been hesitant to produce online for fear of the learning curve, and worries about putting forth a work that is “imperfect,” Congo Square hasn’t been weighed down by those fears, and has flourished. Roston reflects, “I just applaud all theaters. I applaud taking initiative and figuring out how to continue to be creative and be artistic, and keep the art at a level that we are accustomed to. That is to say, I’m proud to be a part of Congo Square.” v