From the death of a blues legend to a musical on the life of a pop icon, Chicago’s entertainment scene was vibrant at every turn. Michelle Obama came home to launch her book tour. Chance the Rapper entered Chicago’s political arena by helping fund the campaign of a mayoral candidate. Steppenwolf alum Laurie Metcalf took Broadway by storm, earning a best actress Tony Award. And “Black Panther” fans celebrated a new hero and a new era in pop culture at Wakandacon. Here’s a look at Chicago’s entertainment stories of 2018:
Chance the activist
Vocal for years about gun violence and racial justice, and generous with his contributions to local charities and causes, Chance the Rapper dug deeper into Chicago politics in 2018. Resisting a push to run for mayor, the lifelong Chicagoan instead threw his support behind a longshot candidate for the office: Amara Enyia, director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. His excitement was catching; after the endorsement, Chance’s friend and musical mentor Kanye West joined him at an Enyia rally in Woodlawn and donated $200,000 to her campaign.
Meanwhile, Chance’s activism continued: He performed at a St. Sabina Church rally to end gun violence, pledged $1 million to local mental health providers and drove a Lyft car incognito to promote his charity, SocialWorks.
He also found time to trumpet his first lead role in a movie, the locally made horror spoof “Slice.” And, lest anyone fear he might give up his day job, Chance assured the audience at a March appearance at the Music of Contemporary Art Chicago that he’s “not done rapping. … That’s my favorite way to express myself.”
Uptown Theater reborn
Schemes to restore the Uptown Theater, one of the city’s crown jewels of live music, have been announced before, only to sputter out. But the plan launched in June, and in the works now, has some promising cred — and some serious dollars. The $75 million package includes funding from multiple government agencies to bring the decaying, 93-year-old theater back to its original ornate glory. Working with Farpoint Acquisitions and an affiliate of concert promoter JAM Productions, the city aims to make it a centerpiece of an Uptown music district that also includes the Aragon Ballroom, the Riviera Theatre, the Green Mill jazz lounge and the Uptown Underground cabaret. Construction is scheduled to begin in August.
Viewers continued to see the sights of the city on TV shows including “The Chi,” “Empire” and the three NBC series with “Chicago” in the title, as well as big-screen productions including “Rampage” and “Death Wish.” But perhaps none showcased our streets better than “Widows,” a heist thriller from “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen. A starry cast including Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Colin Farrell, told the story of women attempting to complete a caper devised by their murdered husbands. Released in November, “Widows” was praised by 91 percent of the critics on the Rotten Tomatoes entertainment website.
• Sun-Times’ top 10 local stories of 2018
• Sun-Times’ top 10 Chicago sports stories of 2018
• Sun-Times’ picks for Chicago’s top entertainment stories of 2018
• Sun-Times’ picks for top nation and world stories of 2018
‘Black Panther’ spawns Wakandacon
Not just a favorite with Chicago audiences, “Black Panther” was a national phenomenon, the No. 1 movie of 2018 domestically with a gross of more than $700 million. The hugely entertaining superhero epic also had remarkable cultural impact, enough so that a group of enthusiastic and enterprising Chicagoans put on a three-day convention, unaffiliated with Marvel Studios, that examined the movie’s themes in a real-world context. At the Hilton Downtown Chicago — across the street from Lollapalooza, taking place the same weekend — Wakandacon touched on gaming, creativity, education, feminism and other subjects. Co-founder David Barthwell said the idea was to help “Panther” fans recapture “this world that gave me characters to identify with and all these people coming together with this energy.”
Laurie Metcalf’s winning ways
For Laurie Metcalf, it seemed no year could exceed 2017, when the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member landed her first Tony Award (for “A Doll’s House, Part 2”), won raves for her supporting role in the movie “Lady Bird” and returned to her signature TV role, Jackie Harris, on ABC’s revival of “Roseanne.” But she topped herself in 2018. The “Lady Bird” triumph earned her an Oscar nomination, the first of her career. (She lost to Allison Janney.) Her Tony got a mate when Metcalf won for her work in a revival of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.” And though her TV job briefly disappeared when ABC fired Roseanne Barr for ill-advised tweeting, Metcalf came back even more prominently on “The Conners,” the sitcom that rose from the ashes of “Roseanne.”
Michelle Obama book tour
She’s a daughter of Chicago’s South Side, a graduate of Whitney Young Magnet High School on the city’s West Side, and a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law. And on Jan. 20, 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States, Michelle Robinson Obama became America’s first lady.
Obama’s journey from Chicago to the White House and every point in between is chronicled in her memoir, “Becoming,” released on Nov. 13. The date also marked the launch of the world tour in support of the tome, and Obama picked her hometown to kick things off.
Fourteen thousand lucky fans packed the United Center to hear Obama discuss her life with host (and former Chicagoan) Oprah Winfrey. When asked to describe the lessons learned from life in the White House, the first lady replied: “Our approach was to do the work. Put your head down. Do the work. Do it excellently, and let your work speak for itself. My husband always had the long view. I followed his lead.”
More than 3 million copies of the book have been sold to date, making it the most successful book of 2018.
‘The Cher Show’ stage musical premieres
Cher wished she could turn back time in one of her biggest hits, and the Oscar-winning singer/actress did just that via “The Cher Show,” a stage musical traversing the decades of her life, from unknown California waif to music icon.
With three actresses portraying Cher — one for each of three pivotal eras in her life journey — the musical, in its June pre-Broadway engagement, was heavy on the hits but not as deeply invested in her trials and tribulations nor her ascent to one of the most beloved icons of the LGBTQ community.
While portrayals of her years alongside husband-Svengali Sonny Bono were revelatory, it was Bob Mackie’s spectacular costumes that nearly stole the show (they even boasted their own musical number). Mackie’s 40-year love affair with dressing the pop goddess for TV, her Las Vegas residencies, world tours and the Academy Awards came full circle with the production. The designer, known for his use of feathers and sequins, remarked about Cher in a Sun-Times interview: “Some people are just born to be goddesses.”
Kerry James Marshall library mural taken off the auction block
It was a remarkable year for Chicago artist/muralist Kerry James Marshall. In May, his painting titled “Past Times” was sold at a New York auction house for $21.5 million (a record for a work by the world-renowned artist), far surpassing pre-auction estimates of $12 million. The painting had been the property of Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority since 1977.
Marshall, whose paintings often depict the Bronzeville neighborhood that is home to his studio, is also known for his large-scale works, including his most recent: a 132-foot-by-100-foot mural adorning the Chicago Cultural Center’s Garland Court façade.
But it was another of his murals that made big headlines in November, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Marshall’s massive mural titled “Knowledge and Wonder,” long a fixture at the Henry E. Legler Public Library in West Garfield Park, would be going on the auction block to help fund a renovation project for the facility. Its estimated selling price was $10 million.
Public outrage over the proposed sale was swift and massive, including from the artist himself, who told a local magazine: “I am certain they could get more money if they sold the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza.”
Emanuel, who grumbled that no such outrage occurred over the sale of “Past Times,” nonetheless acquiesced, citing his longstanding friendship with Marshall as one of the key reasons the sale of the mural was scrapped. He told the Sun-Times: “Kerry’s a friend. And if he’s not happy, then it’s not something that works for everybody.”
‘Charles White: A Retrospective’ opens at the Art Institute of Chicago
Some would say it was the catalyst for a long overdue homage to African-American art. With the June opening of “Charles White: A Retrospective” at the Art Institute, the work of the renown Chicago native, artist and draftsman shed light on Chicago’s Black Renaissance of the 1930s and ‘40s (of which White was a key participant) as well as the magnitude and contributions of White and, more importantly, black artists throughout modern American art history.
One of the exhibit’s co-curators, Sarah Kely Oehler, summed it up succinctly in a Sun-Times interview: “I think he was, by far, one of the most talented artists of the 20th century. Period.”
The exhibit marked the 100th anniversary of White’s birth on Chicago’s South Side. He attended the School of the Art Institute, later teaching art classes at the city’s Southside Community Art Center.
Prominent in leftist artist communities, White’s work espoused profound social messages during the era of the civil rights movement. From 1965 to his passing in 1979, he lived and worked in Los Angeles, where he taught art at Otis Art Institute. Chicago artist/muralist Kerry James Marshall was one of his students.
Key works in the Chicago retrospective included “There Were No Crops This Year” (1940, graphite on paper), one of his earliest Chicago works that put White in the national spotlight, and “Trenton Six” (1949, depicting the six African-Americans tried for killing a white shopkeeper in New Jersey). His most famous work remains the powerfully moving large-scale work titled “Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America,” which hangs at the Hampton University in Virginia.
Otis Rush, blues guitarist 1934-2018
The iconic Chicago blues guitarist influenced the careers of everyone from Carlos Santana to Eric Clapton. And when in October he succumbed at age 84 to complications from a stroke he suffered 15 years earlier, the blues world suffered yet another blow to its legendary ranks. Chicago blues legend Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater had passed away in June.
Rush called Chicago his home for most of his life. His jazz-influenced strains became a cornerstone of the city’s “West Side Sound” starting in the 1950s, and fame would come courtesy of his 1956 release, “I Can’t Quit You Baby.”
The Grammy Award winner would be inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984. And at the 2016 Chicago Blues Festival, the city paid special tribute to the artist. “He was one of the last great blues guitar heroes. He was an electric God,” said Gregg Parker, CEO and a founder of the Chicago Blues Museum.