To Chicago theater audiences, there are two words closely associated with actor John Hoogenakker these days, and they’re not “Dilly Dilly.”
They’re even more iconic: Ebenezer Scrooge.
Hoogenakker is starring as said miser in “Q Brothers Christmas Carol” at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. For the uninitiated, this mile-a-minute, rap-fueled, DJ-spin take on Charles Dickens’ tale of one man’s journey between Christmases past, present and future is unlike anything you might imagine Dickens could be. And that’s a very good thing.
Conceived and directed by the Chicago hip-hop Q Brothers Collective — GQ, JQ, Jackson Doran and Postell “Pos” Pringle — and developed with Chicago Shakespeare creative producer Rick Boynton, the troupe brings the novel’s familiar characters to life, each artist assuming multiple roles: JQ stars as Marley, Belle, Presen and Lil’ Tim; Jax takes on Fred, Dick Wilkins and Mama Cratchit; and Pos breathes life into Bob Cratchit, Past and Martha Cratchit; with Kieran Pereira as the DJ. Hoogenakker plays the central character through Dec. 9 (Jason Grimm steps into the role Dec. 12).
TV viewers will recognize Hoogenakker for his “Dilly Dilly”-spouting medieval king in Budweiser Light commercials. His other small-screen credits include the mysterious and dangerous Matice in the hit series “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” on Amazon, as well as roles on NBC’s “Chicago Fire” and Fox’s “Empire.”
But his love of the stage is always tugging at his sleeve, he says, and his theater credits run deep in Chicago. A graduate of DePaul University, Hoogenakker made his mark on Chicago stages (he earned his Actors’ Equity card here) including the Goodman, Steppenwolf and Writers theaters and at Chicago Shakespeare, where his credits include “Romeo and Juliet,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Othello.”
His film work includes “Flags of Our Fathers” and “A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas.”
“I think audiences here are very special,” Hoogenakker says during a stroll on Navy Pier while on break from “Christmas Carol” rehearsals. “They have a very strong commitment to black-box theaters and really small spaces where people are really jazzed to be up close and personal with actors. … I think that when a community supports that kind of arts it’s something that makes Chicago really special.”
Though TV and film work takes him around the globe (episodes of “Jack Ryan” took him to Colombia), Hoogenakker lives on Chicago’s Northwest Side with his wife and children. He likes New York and Los Angeles but says he’s not interested in putting down roots anywhere else.
“I moved here when I was 18 for college, and the city has been my home ever since,” he says. “I feel very strongly about staying here for the duration.”
The actor has been friends with the Q Brothers for years and performed with them in their “Bomb-itty of Errors” at Chicago Shakespeare in 2002. The call to reunite on stage with his old pals was too good to pass up, the job’s exciting challenges equally intoxicating.
Hoogenakker says to prepare to play Scrooge, “I reached out to Chicago Shakespeare Theater for archival footage and audio recordings of the script. I felt it was incumbent on me to show up as prepared as humanly possible. We only had two weeks to plug me into this. Scrooge is on the stage the whole time, and it moves at a breakneck pace.
“I knew there was room for me to do my own thing in the show. But, for the most part, it’s a well-tuned machine. I was excited because it got me out of the comfort zone I’ve been in for a couple of years now. The last time I was on stage was at Writers Theater [in Glencoe] for ‘Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody.'”
“We’re lucky to have known this person since we were kids,” Pos says. “And John’s one of the best actors in the world, so we’re really lucky to get him back. Honestly, we’ve been trying to get this guy to one of our shows again for more than a decade. He could have been Tiny Tim [laughs]. He could have been anybody in the show, and it still would have been dope.”
The brotherly love and respect the Collective has for Hoogenakker, and vice versa, is unmistakable. Unexpectedly, JQ walks in on the interview and immediately sings Hoogenakker’s praises, especially when it comes to the latter’s ability to master the art of simultaneously rapping and acting.
“Fortunately with our style, you don’t want to rap super-hardwire on stage,” JQ says, flashing a megawatt smile. “You want it to just be acting that happens to rhyme over the beat. It’s usually really hard for actors. They come in and try to rap it so hard. John has such good rhythm, it’s innate in him. So he knows where he needs to be in the beat. … You need to be able to convey a normal conversation over the beat. To be able to just jump in after so many years of not doing acting in verse, it’s amazing.”
“You have to listen and be connected to one another,” Hoogenakker adds. “It’s not gonna escape anyone who’s seen the show or their work that there’s a lot of love in this Collective. You’ve got four guys who’ve been together creating theater together for over a decade now. They listen to one another, and they’re all creative geniuses in their own right. It’s like I’m [getting to] play tambourine with the Beatles!”
So what attracts so many actors to the role of Scrooge?
“I was talking to GQ today, and he said the core of the role is that [Scrooge] is a stand-in for everyone in the audience,” Hoogenakker says. “And when we see him make that final turn at the end, it’s redemption for everybody. We all hope we can have the scales fall from our eyes in that way.”
For Pos, the show’s takeaway goes deeper. “I want [audiences] to be truly connected with selflessness,” he says. “The idea that you give something to the other people, to community. Give back — everything you are is because of the people around you. And I just want [the audience] to have a good time. I want them to dance in their seat so hard they have to stand up and dance on their feet. See, that rhymes!”