Positive Revues

Rodney Lewis began his professional theater career working for Jackie Taylor, artistic director of Black Ensemble Theater, but in the last two years his striking success as an independent producer may have taught his old mentor a thing or two. Lewis’s first show, A Piece of My Soul, traced the history of gospel music from the late 1800s to the present, following the musical revue format that had proved so successful for Black Ensemble. It opened in July 1998 on the Victory Gardens main stage, ran for six weeks, and played another nine weeks at the now-defunct Dreamstreet Theatre & Cabaret in suburban Blue Island. Motivational speaker Les Brown caught the show, put up cash to help underwrite a national tour, and availed Lewis of his promotional firm to advise him on the marketing. A Piece of My Soul has since played in 25 cities around the U.S. and several more in Poland and Germany as part of a cultural exchange program. Now Taylor is setting up a commercial organization to send Black Ensemble productions out on the road; if all goes according to plan, the company will mount a fall 2001 tour of its current smash, The Jackie Wilson Story (My Heart Is Crying, Crying…).

As a business major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lewis wrote plays on the side and so impressed the university’s theater department that he was invited to write and present a show every year. After graduating in 1991 he took a job at Ameritech, but he continued to write and became a fan of Black Ensemble. In 1995 he asked Taylor to look at his work. “He was a young novice, but I could see the potential,” she recalls. She hired Lewis as an associate director and taught him how to produce a show. “I learned what it takes to do a commercial production,” says Lewis. “How to handle a cast and how to market a show.” Three years ago he decided to strike out on his own and formed New Age Theater, yet he’s the first to admit that A Piece of My Soul and its sequel, From Grassroots to Glory: The Anthology of Gospel II, take advantage of Black Ensemble’s winning formula. Taylor says that Lewis’s shows can only broaden the audience for both companies: “The more the merrier.”

Lewis hasn’t been quite as merry since July 28, when From Grassroots to Glory opened on the Ivanhoe Theater’s main stage. Early reviews were favorable, but so far the sequel, which focuses on the recording and broadcasting of gospel, has failed to draw as well as A Piece of My Soul. Lewis thinks the earlier production was bolstered by a positive review in the Sun-Times that helped the show find its core African-American audience; this time around the paper came through with another rave, by critic Rosalind Cummings-Yeates, but it wasn’t published until last week. Doug Bragan, owner of the Ivanhoe, says he’ll wait until mid-September to decide whether to give Lewis’s show the hook. In the meantime Lewis is handing out thousands of boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios at performances as part of a promotional deal with General Mills; the Minneapolis giant hasn’t come across with any cash but has first right of refusal to become the show’s principal sponsor should it go on tour. Lewis would like to keep the show going through January 2001 and take it on the road during Black History Month, and if he has to distribute Honey Nut Cheerios to get there, that’s what he’ll do. “Rodney is very resourceful,” says Taylor. “He knows how to make things happen.”

Rising in the East

Chicago may be known around the world for its historic skyscrapers, but the Art Institute’s new exhibition Skyscrapers: The New Millennium reveals that the focus of skyscraper construction has shifted dramatically in the past decade, from U.S. cities to southeast Asia in general and Shanghai in particular. Of the seventy structures surveyed in the exhibition, nine have been or will soon be built in Shanghai, where the Pudong business district is being developed from scratch. “Zoning and building permits are easier to get there,” says Martha Thorne, assistant curator in the museum’s department of architecture, “and it’s a part of the world where there’s still a lot of room for growth.”

But real estate isn’t the only factor: the changing face of American business has also slowed construction of new skyscrapers. “We have a more mobile workforce with more people working at home,” Thorne points out, “so large groups of people no longer need to congregate in one big building.” Many contemporary U.S. skyscrapers are multiuse facilities like the recently completed Park Tower just west of the Water Tower. “These buildings often have retail, parking, condos, office space, and a hotel under one roof.” Other Chicago skyscrapers in the exhibition, which runs through mid-January 2001, include the Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois building at 300 E. Randolph, which was designed so additional floors could be added to the existing structure, and the Sofitel Hotel under construction near Chestnut and Wabash.

Jim Hirsch Pops Up Downtown

Jim Hirsch, who ended his 18-year tenure as executive director of the Old Town School of Folk Music in April, has resurfaced as vice president and executive director of the Chicago Theatre. Hirsch will oversee day-to-day management of the venue and report to Doug Kridler, president of the nonprofit Chicago Association for the Performing Arts. Since it began leasing the restored theater in June 1998, CAPA has been promoting an eclectic lineup of attractions, including world-music performers like Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, and the Afro-Cuban All Stars and a forthcoming appearance by the Ballet Folklorico de Bahia. Hirsch has considerable expertise in international folk styles, which may have been a factor in his appointment; Kridler says that he’ll consult Hirsch on booking decisions but will retain control of the programming.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.