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ETA Creative Arts Foundation


Chicago Theatre Company

Anybody interested in discovering the future powerhouses of Chicago theater should board the Jeffery Express and head south. Now. The future David Mamets and John Malkoviches who can put Chicago back in the smack-dab center of the theater universe aren’t plying their craft in some Highland Park basement or walk-up near Broadway and Grace. They’re on East 67th Street and South Chicago, performing some of the city’s most innovative and challenging drama.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But while many of the city’s most highly respected theater companies rely on predictable revivals of classic works and ultrasafe or provocative-for-the-sake-of-being-provocative new work, Chicago Theatre Company and ETA Creative Arts Foundation are running two blisteringly effective pieces of theater that provide more entertainment and confront more crucial contemporary issues than almost any other production in town.

Though quite different in style and content, ETA’s Food for the Gods and Chicago Theatre Company’s The Mojo and the Sayso both address the difficulties of surviving in an increasingly violent and drug-infested urban society where the church no longer provides an antidote. Both plays offer methods to escape an environment where, as novelist John LeCarre puts it, one has to try to be a hero in order to be a decent human being. Neither work is perfect, but both have so much talent, intelligence, and depth they shouldn’t be missed.

Songodina Ifatunji’s Food for the Gods explores the rigors of living in a modern American city while trying to maintain a link with one’s African heritage. An eccentric actor and musician named Gates lives with his girlfriend in the basement of his mother’s house, where he’s built a shrine to his African ancestors and, much to his pragmatic girlfriend’s chagrin, spends much of his time beating a drum and listening to messages from mystical shells, which he uses to determine whether he should seek gainful employment.

Gates’s brother is in prison, and his only son, Okanbi, a crack user, seems well on his way to joining him. When Okanbi arrives at Gates’s home strung out on drugs, Gates attempts to cure him, eschewing Christian religion and modern medicine and employing the costumes, music, and ritual sacrifices of a mystical African religion.

Ifatunji’s script masterfully intertwines the commonplace with the supernatural to create an invigorating unpredictability that stretches our vision of reality. He glides with skill from everyday conversation to spiritualism, suggesting the works of August Wilson combined with Latin American magical realism. Moods shift rapidly as Ifatunji tempers moments of profound seriousness with witty dialogue, then undercuts the humor to leave us with jarring moments of tragedy.

Gates, whose name implies both an entrance and a barrier, is intriguingly complex, arrogant in his refusal to listen to anyone’s advice concerning his son, but also somewhat heroic in protecting those he loves. For Ifatunji, Gates seems to embody the struggles of the modern African American man who must isolate himself from his community and cling tenaciously to his beliefs if he hopes to survive and save his family. Ifatunji is not quite as successful in his characterizations of women, particularly Gates’s girlfriend Mary, who functions more as a two-dimensional foil for Gates’s character than as a believable human being.

This superb production is anchored by excellent performances from Senuwell Smith, who makes Gates consistently fascinating, and Victor Wells (Okanbi), who succeeds in capturing the audience’s attention even though we can’t see his face for much of the play. Both drive home the power and passion of this compelling script.

Far more perplexing but no less exciting or intellectually demanding is Aishah Rahman’s hauntingly poetic The Mojo and the Sayso, in which the family of a young boy murdered by police confronts its grief on the third anniversary of his death. The plot description might sound simple or dull, but Rahman’s surreal, off-the-wall style makes this one of the most startling, moving plays to come around in quite some time. It’s only about 70 minutes long, but it’s terribly complicated, with layers of weird and wonderful symbolism.

Since her son’s death, the mother has turned to religion, lighting candles to his memory in a shrine made out of a red wagon. Her remaining son, Blood, has become paranoid, arming himself with a knife and an unloaded gun. The boy’s father, Acts, considers himself responsible for his son’s death and spends all his waking hours in the family living room rebuilding a vintage automobile with junkyard scraps, promising that one day the three of them will drive out of the house and start a new life.

Rahman’s script meanders for a while, going off on tangents and occasionally exploding in impressive bursts of poetry, but finds its direction when the local scripture-spouting preacher, having heard the family has received compensation from the police department for the boy’s wrongful death, comes sniffing around for a donation to his church. He’s soon revealed to be a hypocrite, and the family decides it won’t find answers in religion. By the end the three have learned how to cope with their tragedy, and they step into Acts’s automobile bile for a ride into the sunset. It may sound corny, but this is one of the most affecting moments I’ve seen on a Chicago stage in quite some time.

Phillip Van Lear’s direction occasionally gets a little too loud and overly mannered, which weakens some of Rahman’s language, but for the most part the production is right on target. Charles Glenn’s performance as Acts demonstrates why he’s one of the most engaging actors in town, and Patrick Kerwin’s set design, featuring Acts’s beautiful black jalopy as its centerpiece, is a master stroke.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Davis.