THE SUTHERLAND, Victory Gardens Theater. Jazz musician Eugene Taylor learns upon returning to Chicago after 15 years in Europe that you can’t go home again. But the boy who ran away from home and came back a man determines to rescue a small part of what he left behind–the Sutherland Hotel and Ballroom, at which some of the greatest names in jazz performed before the devastation of the 1960s left it a ruin.
Charles Smith’s biographical play, detailing the life of Chicago jazzman Malachi Thompson and his struggle to preserve the Bronzeville landmark (ask after the show how you can help), could easily have become nostalgic propaganda. Smith is not a playwright to take the easy road, however, even when his subject is still alive and sharing program credit: Thompson himself supplies the sweet, haunting incidental music. Under the direction of Dennis Zacek, The Sutherland is an articulate, well-paced portrait of personalities whose motives are recognizably, plausibly human. As Eugene, Dexter Zollicoffer dances between the present and the past with never a misstep, flanked by Velma Austin and Kelley Hazen as the two strong women in Eugene’s life; John Steven Crowley and Kenn E. Head play a variety of strong male influences. Together they create a rich, detailed picture of a time–and of the man who won’t let us forget it. –Mary Shen Barnidge