Chaz & Roger & love & death in a Black Ensemble Theater homage to the Eberts

SHARE Chaz & Roger & love & death in a Black Ensemble Theater homage to the Eberts

There are two solidly dramatic moments in “The BlackWhite Love Play (The Story of Chaz & Roger Ebert),” Jackie Taylor’s decidedly Chaz-focused new show at the Black Ensemble Theater that chronicles the marriage between the late Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times and his wife.

In one sequence Taylor captures an argument between the two that occurs in 1995 (three years after they married), when the jury in the OJ Simpson trial finds the former athlete not guilty on two counts of murder.

Chaz (played by Rashada Dawan), who was a trial attorney until she left the profession to become Ebert’s business partner, is triumphal, proclaiming that finally there is justice, and that the decision makes up for earlier injustices against African-American men. Roger (Kevin Pollack), who rarely challenges the woman he refers to as his “goddess,” is appalled by the verdict, saying that a guilty man has been set free. They agree to disagree, but at least there is some believable tension on the stage in the midst of what is two hours of near hagiography.

Rashada Dawan plays Chaz and Kevin Pollack plays Roger (center) in “The BlackWhite Love Play (The Story of Chaz & Roger Ebert),” at the Black Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Danny Nicholas)

Rashada Dawan plays Chaz and Kevin Pollack plays Roger (center) in “The BlackWhite Love Play (The Story of Chaz & Roger Ebert),” at the Black Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Danny Nicholas)

The second powerful moment in the show comes when Chaz opens up and speaks frankly about the challenges and exhaustion that face a wife who becomes the caretaker of the man she loves. As is well known by all those who followed Roger’s dramatic medical travails from 2002 to his death in 2013, at age 70, he suffered from thyroid and salivary gland cancer, and underwent an aggressive radiation treatment that eventually left him unable to speak and wholly reliant on a feeding tube. Though he was a profile in courage — continuing to write and bravely appearing in public despite his facial deformation — the play suggests Roger’s mood swings, his anger at being dependent and a near-death situation could be rough going, and only the pair’s deep bond of love made it endurable.

‘THE BLACK WHITELOVE PLAY (The Story of Chaz and Roger Ebert)’

Somewhat recommended

When: Through Nov. 15

Where: Black Ensemble Theater,

4450 N. Clark

Tickets: $55 – $65

Info: (773) 769-4451;

www.blackensemble.org

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the show too often sounds like an Oprah-like bromide about how Chaz and Roger faced the prejudice of the outside world in regard to their bi-racial marriage. The truth is, by the time they married in 1992 (when Roger, til then a bachelor, was 50, and Chaz was a divorcee with two children), such marriages were no longer unusual. And these were two grown-ups, not Romeo and Juliet adolescents. (The script’s references to gay marriage seem tacked on for topical value.)

Rashada Dawan as Chaz Ebert with archival photos and the chorus of “The BlackWhite Love Play (The Story of Chaz & Roger Ebert)” in the background. (Photo: Danny Nicholas)

Rashada Dawan as Chaz Ebert with archival photos and the chorus of “The BlackWhite Love Play (The Story of Chaz & Roger Ebert)” in the background. (Photo: Danny Nicholas)

“The BlackWhite Love Play” outlines how Chaz and Roger met (first at an AA meeting, and then by way of an introduction from Ann Landers); their first date at a performance of “Tosca” at Lyric Opera (with a brief but lovely bit of singing by Matthew T. Payne); their first trip together (for which Chaz sought the approval of her mother, winningly played by Qween Wicks, who soars in “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”); their wedding, and their taste in music, from gospel to pop (although the show’s song list feels as if the rights to many things were either unavailable or prohibitively expensive). Of course, the many years of illness are an essential element, too.

RELATED: ‘It is surreal’ to be portrayed in a musical, says Chaz Ebert

The big surprise here is that virtually nothing has been lifted from any of Roger’s many thousands of movie reviews —many of which dealt with themes of race or with the lives of musicians, or included pop music as part of their subject matter or their soundtrack. And unlike in most Black Ensemble shows, in which the music drives the story, here it only comes in fits and starts.

To be sure, Taylor has chosen ideal leads. Dawan possesses the luminous beauty of Chaz (who came on stage following Sunday afternoon’s opening performance and described the actress as “a better me”). And the actress delivers a knockout rendering of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Pollack impressively captures Roger’s rather lumbering movement and vocal inflections, although anyone who caught this actor’s brilliant vocal turns as Tom Jones and Joe Cocker in BET’s recent revue “Men of Soul” will know that he is underused here.

Forming a sort of Greek chorus are Rueben Echoles, Porsche King, Robbin Major, Jhardon Dishon Milton, Jessica Seals, Kyle Smith, Sally Staats and Payne, with Evelyn Danner as the Griot — many of whom have proven in previous productions that they can light up a stage.

The six-piece orchestra, led by Robert Reddrick, is, as always, first-rate — heard to especially fine effect in the overture. But for the most part this show is full of missed opportunities and can’t come close to Roger’s own memoir, “Life Itself,” or the documentary it inspired.

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