Ask Jackie Taylor, the Black Ensemble Theater’s founder, executive director and artistic “jackie” of all artistic trades, why she titled her newest show, “The BlackWhite Love Play: The Story of Chaz & Roger Ebert,” as opposed to the “Black and White Love Play,” and she has the explanation at the ready.
“The title represents their seamless relationship,” said Taylor. “They were not a ‘black and white’ couple; they were just a ‘blackwhite couple.’ They thought about race, but the love they had went beyond race, beyond color. That just didn’t matter.”
As for the genesis of the show, that too had a seamless quality. As Chaz Ebert recalls it: “When Roger passed away in 2013 he left bequests to a number of arts organizations, and the Black Ensemble was one of them. We’d seen shows there often, and took the family with us. And now Jackie wanted to do something meaningful with the bequest, so we talked back and forth, and she asked me about the shows I’d enjoyed, though I never thought she’d eventually write a play about ‘us.’
“In fact, in the beginning, after Jackie had read Roger’s memoir, ‘Life Itself,’ and saw the documentary based on it, the play was going to be about Roger and what he stood for, and that fit into BET’s mission to eradicate racism through the arts,” said Chaz. “But then Jackie said: ‘It’s the love story.’ So I just put the creative control entirely in her hands, because it is surreal to have someone do a play about you and see an actress portray you.”
Playing Chaz will be Rashada Dawan (who has appeared in the national tour of ‘The Lion King,” Black Ensemble’s “The Other Cinderella,” BoHo Theatre’s “Big River” and Bailiwick Chicago’s “Aida”). Playing Roger will be Kevin Pollack (who blew audiences away in the recent BET show “Men of Soul,” with his portrayals of Tom Jones and Joe Cocker).
So, with Chaz’s permission, and a number of sessions of questions-and-answers, Taylor began work, chronicling the story of Chaz and Roger Ebert from their first meeting, through their courtship, their marriage in 1992 (when Roger was 50), and Roger’s illness and death. Music of every kind was to be crucial to that story. Chaz laughingly describes herself as “an old blues woman,” but she and Roger could often be spotted at Lyric Opera and Symphony Center.
The play begins when Chaz, a trial attorney, and Ebert, that maestro of all things cinematic, first met.
‘THE BLACK WHITE LOVE PLAY (The Story of Chaz and Roger Ebert)’ When: Previews begin Sept. 26; opens Oct. 4 and runs through Nov. 15 Where: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark Tickets: $55 – $65 Info: (773) 769-4451; www.blackensemble.org
“Officially it was at a restaurant at which Eppie Lederer [Ann Landers] introduced them,” said Taylor. “But in fact they had met earlier that day at an AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting. As the story goes, Chaz was late, Roger saw her come in, and he motioned to her to sit down in the empty seat beside him. They didn’t talk, but both noticed something ‘felt good.’ It was by chance that they ended up at the same restaurant later that day, each with their little entourages. Roger just had to find out who this woman was, and asked Eppie to introduce them. Their first date was a performance of ‘Tosca’ at the Lyric.”
Taylor also took a cue from ancient Greek theater to structure the play, noting: “The Greeks used a chorus as storyteller, incorporating poetry, song, dance and music. It was a celebration of the gods, and in this story we are honoring Love, the most powerful of the gods. When I spoke to Chaz I could feel the intensity of her love for him.”
It was mutual. As Roger wrote in a 2012 blog entry: “Chaz fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading.”
The show’s song list will reflect to some extent the couple’s taste in music, which Chaz described as “eclectic.”
“Gospel to classical, Sinatra, folk (especially Pete Seeger, a friend, and Peter, Paul & Mary), jazz (Ella Fitzgerald and Tommy Dorsey), hip-hop, Leonard Cohen,” she said. “And opera. Puccini was our favorite, although we both enjoyed Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and over the years we saw opera productions in Venice, Paris, Verona and Santa Fe.
“As for particular songs, there certainly was Rod Stewart’s ‘You’re in My Heart.’ We danced to ‘As Time Goes By,’ from ‘Casablanca.’ My sister sang [the Carpenters’ hit] ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ at our wedding. And of course Aretha Franklin, and anything Motown — Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye. And there were films about musicians we loved: ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It,’ about Tina Turner; ‘Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould’; ‘Ray’ [about Ray Charles]; ‘Amadeus.’ We tended to go to plays more than musicals, whether on Broadway or in London, although we loved ‘The Lion King’ and ‘The Producers.’ ”
“Roger had a record player and tons of LPs, and he also played CDs,” said Chaz. “Before going to the hospital he always loaded up his iPod. I think people didn’t know just how much he loved music. He didn’t like wearing headphones or earbuds; he wanted music to be part of the ambient sound of a room.”
Although the two never spoke about the music Roger would want at his funeral, there were two gospel choirs at the ceremony. And Chaz noted that when she recently saw Paul McCartney (who shared a birthday with Roger), he expressed his condolences.