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The Best of 2017

As the 2017 Chicago Theatre season comes to a close, what a lovely year it was for talent and stories across the board. Particularly for artists of color and the diversity that is inherent in our great city. Here is a top 10 list, in no particular order, of my favorite shows, moments, and performances from this past season:

10. Lizzie: The Musical

Firebrand’s production of LIZZIE: The Musical. This stunning debut by the feminist theatre company, which boasts a rare but incredibly powerful all-woman-led, produced, and designed show. A whirlwind that is filled with fiercely charged energy all the way through by a tight, grounded, deft ensemble of actors. Liz Childester’s climatic Act 1 finale of Lizzie killing her parents was a theatrical moment that audiences will surely remember for a while.

9. A Swell in the Ground

The Gift Theatre’s production of the new Janine Nabers play centering on Olivia as she deals with love, loss, and adulting. The story often played as a great, intimate TV dramedy, filled with plot twists, romance, and heartbreaking humanity. Sydney Charles’s deftly-anchored performance as Olivia, a modern-day Chekhovian Nina, left audiences contemplating, hoping, and deep in our emotions. Chika Ike’s production gave us a fine example of what a promising and exciting director she is.

8. Heather Chrisler in Machinal

Heather Chrisler’s central performance in this reimagined production was simply not to be missed. We took the extraordinary emotional journey with her and felt every wave. The quietly brewing resentment at the men and even her mother --and the metronome of rebellion ticking underneath an incredibly specific performance featuring a full range of emotions-- can only be called an old-fashioned tour-de-force. Every note was pitch-perfect.

7. Fun Home

This Victory Gardens Chicago premiere of the Gary Griffin-directed musical was everything fans of this piece wanted: the coming-of-age story, the facing one's own truth and humanity, coping, understanding, despair, hope. Alison Bechdel's story sang from the stages and moved us all well beyond the 90 minute running time.

6. J. Nicole Brooks in Lottery Day

J. Nicole’s performance as Mallory was, for me, one of the best performances of the season. The latest installment in playwright Ike Holter’s Chicago anthology took place in Mallory’s back yard. Secrets were revealed, a scavenger hunt ensued, and reckonings were had. Mallory’s final moment of panic attack/breakdown, staged beautifully by Lili-Anne Brown, was a moment audiences can never forget.

5. In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play

Timeline Theatre Company’s revival of the Sarah Ruhl play, following a reading in association with the Chicago Inclusion Project, boasted a dynamically diverse cast that fired on all cylinders. The entire production was top notch, featuring a hilariously bold and tight ensemble of actors, gorgeous costumes, and a stunning birdcage set that gave audiences a sense of beautiful entrapment. Mechelle Moe directed a production that will live in the hearts of many as the definitive version of this great play.

4. Objects in the Mirror

Charles Smith’s play is based on the true story of Shedrick Yarkpai, a Liberian refugee escaping his war-torn home to make a life with his uncle in Australia. The themes of coming of age, accepting one’s history and finding one's own identity no matter where you live, resonated strongly in this production. Daniel Kyri’s performance as Shedrick --a nuanced, deftly-delivered take on the central role-- grounded the production in what was ultimately a lovely night at the theatre.

3. The Crucible

The Jonathan Berry-directed TYA Steppenwolf production boasted yet another awesomely diverse cast filled with young, talented actors shining and making the Arthur Miller classic live anew. A special standout in the show was Michael Patrick Thornton as Judge Hawthorne, bringing his own personal brand of terrifying, truth-seeking justice at any cost. The danger, frustration, and interrogation techniques employed by his performance left audiences reeling. Thornton was at peak acting power, and it was a thrill to behold.

2. The Wiz

Kokandy’s Lili-Anne Brown-directed production, starring Sydney Charles. Brown’s production had a new, inventive concept and provided an awesome, true-to-Chicago, reimagining of the black classic. Breon Arzell’s choreography transported us to Oz and back in fluid, organic, exquisite work. The entire ensemble of actors kept the energy, laughs, songs, and kicks high! Wonderful performances throughout from Steven Perkins, Chuckie Benson, Gilbert Thomas Domally, Anna Dauzvardis, Nicole Michelle Haskins, and Angela Alise. But the show surely belonged to Sydney Charles, whose star-making turn as Dorothy is the stuff of little black kids’ dreams for years to come. The 11 o’clock number “Home” soared the audience to such heights, we were left floating down Belmont for hours afterwards.

1. Pass Over

Rarely has a play so quickly sparked such fierce controversy, dialogue, and debate-- becoming a national theatre conversation, garnering disrespect from multiple critics, and still emerging as one of the hottest plays to hit Chicago in a long time. Antoinette Nwandu’s reimagining of Waiting for Godot --as black men on a street corner, trying to survive and Pass Over to the promise land-- was simply a show that had to be seen to be understood. Once seen, it might have taken hours to fully digest the whole of the work. Indicting white Americans and corrupt police officers alike, the sickening climax of the play left audiences weeping and silent as they exited the theatre. That, to me, makes it one of the most exciting theatrical events of the year!

Honorable Mentions:

Tiffany Renee Johnson as Joan of Arc in Saint Joan; The Toilet directed by Ian Martin at Director’s Haven; We’re Gonna Die at Haven Theatre Company; Sandra Delgado’s La Havana Madrid.

Shows I wish I’d seen and/or haven’t seen yet:

An Octoroon

Significant Other


Red Velvet

Wardell Julius Clark hails from Fairfield, Alabama.Chicago Directing Credits include Insurrection: Holding History (Stage Left Theatre) Jan. 2018, Surely Goodness and Mercy (Redtwist Theatre) Feb. 2018 Associate Director for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Court Theatre) - Spring 2018, The One Minute Play Festival, Shola's Game (Black Lives, Black Words Chicago 2), Assistant Director for The Scottsboro Boys (Porchlight Music Theatre); Satchmo At The Waldorf and Gem Of The Ocean (Court Theatre). Chicago Acting Credits include Silent Sky (First Folio Theatre); Apartment 3a (Windy City Playhouse); Gem Of The Ocean (Court Theatre); A Raisin In The Sun (TimeLine Theatre); The Whipping Man (Northlight Theatre); We Are Proud To Present... and The Gospel According To James (Victory Gardens Theatre); Invisible Man (Court Theatre); The Beats (16th Street Theater); Ghosts Of Atwood (MPAACT), for which he received the Black Theater Alliance Denzel Washington Award for Most Promising Actor; and Topdog/Underdog (American Theater Company/Congo Square Theater). Regional credits include Othello, Macbeth, The Learned Ladies (Theater at Monmouth); The Whipping Man (Cardinal Stage); Cymbeline (Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival); Fences (Carver Theatre). TV/Film: Shameless, Chicago Fire Seasons 1 and 4, Transformers: Dark the Moon. He holds a BFA in Acting from The Theatre School, at DePaul University. He has studied at Lincoln Center in NYC with directors, actors, and visual artists in a summer intensive at the Artist Development Lab. Wardell is the Casting and Producing Associate with TimeLine Theatre Company, where he is also an Associate Artist, and serves as a teaching artist in the Living History Program, as well as a teaching artist for Victory Gardens Theatre. He is also an Associate Artist with the Black Lives, Black Words theatre collective.

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