Goodman Theatre

At its best, the Goodman Theatre can make all the other companies in Chicago pale by comparison, championing the work of new playwrights with superbly acted, beautifully rendered productions and respectfully reviving the classics. But at its worst Goodman is a hellish Ringling Brothers, dwarfing decent plays and overcompensating for mediocre ones with overblown, superfluous gimmicks, gadgets, and technical wizardry. Next season’s heralded premiere is enough to make one shudder in grim anticipation: the emperor of modern gimmick theater, Peter Sellars, brings to town his Merchant of Venice. (Let me guess–Shylock runs a bagel bakery in South Central LA.)

The Chicago premiere of OyamO’s I Am a Man falls somewhere between the two extremes. This often gripping and pithy historical tale of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which coincided with the assassination of Martin Luther King, features some of the best acting on a Chicago stage in quite some time. But the beauty of OyamO’s agit-jazz poetry and the talents of director Marion McClinton’s actors are sometimes overwhelmed by the, well, Goodman-esque production.

The set on which the struggles of self-styled labor leader T.O. Jones are played out is symptomatic of Goodman’s tendency to gild the theatrical lily. Scott Bradley’s imposing metallic-looking abstract set–the part with jaws engulfs the two black sanitation workers whose deaths inspired the strike–looks like something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The intent may be to symbolize the pain caused by capitalist machinery; the effect, however, is merely distracting. Similarly, an exceedingly well choreographed and energetic scene in a Memphis honky-tonk is one of the play’s most elaborate, yet one of its least significant.

OyamO’s work is less a traditional play than it is a patchwork of scenes, speeches, and musical numbers (most of them ably executed by Olu Dara, whose Bluesman wanders in and out making wry musical observations) tracing the workers’ strike up through the assassination of King, who came to Memphis to march in support of the workers. Like a film, the play cross-cuts between scenes and uses photo montages from the strike as backdrops. It fades in and out of scenes of dim-witted but menacing upholders of civic order–the mayor, the chief of police, a peculiar messenger who sounds like Darth Vader–and scenes of Jones’s emerging political fortunes and disintegrating personal life.

Though much of I Am a Man plays like a movie, at least it’s not the usual trite heroic story of a man who risks all and triumphs on behalf of his followers. This is not F.I.S.T. or Norma Rae–OyamO’s play is much more complex and real. This is the story of a man who labors mightily for his beliefs only to find himself beaten down by his supporters as well as his enemies. The play is not about Jones’s success but about his trivialization and ultimate failure as his causes–fair wages and decent working conditions–attract competing interest groups. The NAACP, the church, the national labor movement, and the black-power movement all marginalize Jones, making him little more than a figurehead. By the end of the play Jones understands that his struggles have led only to the destruction of his personal life, the death of Martin Luther King, and a mere eight-cent-an-hour raise for his workers. Like the actors in Goodman’s production, Jones gets swallowed up by the system.

What makes Goodman’s production really cook has little to do with the set pieces and choreography and a whole lot to do with Jones’s compelling story and Anthony Chisholm’s magnificent portrayal of the man. In Chisholm’s hands, this small-time hustler who ended up at the vortex of a labor movement that attracted national attention is a fascinating, complex, and often charismatic figure. Whenever Chisholm is onstage, which is often, he carries the show, perfectly capturing the syncopated rhythms of the poorly educated but street-smart Jones. He is as adept at conveying Jones’s electricity as at communicating the naivete and pride that led to his downfall.

The rest of the largely stellar cast unfortunately can’t equal the grand scale of the production the way Chisholm can. Some err on the side of excess: Lee R. Sellars’s loudmouthed, pushy Jewish labor leader gets easy laughs but borders on caricature, and Steve Pickering’s redneck chief of police is like a Dennis Hopper Easy Rider nightmare. Other performances are too subtle–lovely little depictions that fail to capture our attention. As Jones’s wife, Jacqueline Williams is certainly sympathetic, but much of the time she fails to register. And Pickering’s other character, the proper British Reverend Weatherford, is sweet and witty and gets drowned out much of the time.

Certainly this production establishes Chisholm as a major talent on the national theater scene, one who might even achieve household-name status. Whether the same is true of playwright OyamO is a more difficult question. At times his use of language and characterization suggest an exciting new political voice, a 90s Brecht with a greater compassion and social conscience. At other times, however, his words get lost in the Goodman din. That makes it hard to say whether the Goodman is doing him a favor by hiding his flaws or doing him a disservice by obscuring his fine points.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.