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Samuel G. Roberson Jr., Congo Square Theater director, dies at 34

Samuel G. Roberson Jr. is photographed in 2016 at the Gift Theatre. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

BSamuel G. Roberson Jr., an actor, director, teacher and artistic director of Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre Company died late Sunday night at the age of 34 after a long battle with health problems, from leukemia to complications from a heart and kidney transplant.

A truly gentle soul and fine talent, his last major production was “The Scottsboro Boys,” the Kander and Ebb musical produced last season by Porchlight Music Theatre. It was a ferocious burst of theatrical energy that told a horrific tale of racism in America directed by a soft-spoken man who always seemed at peace.

In a Facebook post shared by Congo Square, Roberson’s family shared the news of his passing and thanked his supporters by writing, in part: “We can’t adequately describe how proud we are of Samuel G. Roberson Jr. and his legacy. … We love you all and appreciate your support of Lil Sam throughout his gift of life. Our Champions life.”

Michael Halberstam, artistic director of Writers Theatre, said he knew Roberson in many capacities over the years “as an employee, a colleague, a mentor, a fellow artistic director and a friend.”

“Sam was filled with charm, passion, vitality and vision,” said Halberstam. “He had an immediately engaging personality and the ability to infuse all around him with a sense of joy and social purpose. From his activism through artistic engagement, to his savvy programming at Congo Square, to his indefatigable drive to make important artistic statements, Sam proved again and again that Black Lives Matter – and indeed, Sam’s life mattered to us all.”

Michael Weber, artistic director of Porchlight Music Theatre, knew Roberson only as a professional acquaintance at the time he hired him to direct “The Scottsboro Boys,” but he noted: “Sam’s passion for this story of social injustice, and his identification with the young men who were the subject of the work, was palpable.”

“I had just some passing knowledge of Sam’s health struggles, and it was only after he had been hired to direct that the possibility of a double transplant became a reality,” Weber recalled. “We discussed it together, along with the implications it might have on the production. Sam didn’t see it as an issue. He knew he would recover and get the job done. In fact, the responsibility of directing a big musical was the kind of goal he wanted as part of his recovery. And he brought a unique and arresting approach to the process and the production. He was a remarkable and gentle giant, and we are so grateful to have been able to put his artistry on display at Porchlight.”

Roberson is survived by his wife, Ashley, his father, Samuel Roberson, Sr., his mother, Traci, and three sisters. Memorial arrangements are still to be announced.