Congo Square kicks off 20th season with modern take on ‘Day of Absence’

As a salute to the start of its milestone 20th anniversary, Congo Square reached back into New York’s famed Negro Ensemble’s history and chose the one-act play by Douglas Turner Ward.

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Congo Square Theatre ensemble member Anthony Irons is directing the company’s production of the Obie Award-winning satiric classic “Day of Absence.”

Congo Square Theatre ensemble member Anthony Irons is directing the company’s production of the Obie Award-winning satiric classic “Day of Absence.”

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Time

When Derrick Sanders and Reginald Nelson founded Congo Square Theatre in 1999, there was one theater they looked to for inspiration — New York’s legendary Negro Ensemble Company. In the mid-‘60s, playwright Douglas Turner Ward, actor Robert Hooks and theater manager Gerald S. Krone fulfilled their dream of founding a theater company focused on stories by and about black life for audiences underserved in the theater world.

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‘Day of Absence’

When: Feb. 27-March 22

Where: Congo Square Theatre at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $35

Info: congosquaretheatre.org

“Negro Ensemble was an inspiration for us in how bold they were, in the high quality of their work and in how they were pushing American theater forward,” Sanders says. “We didn’t want to come into Chicago and do community theater; we wanted to do it at the highest level.”

As a salute to the start of its milestone 20th anniversary (the upcoming season will be announced in March), Congo Square reached back into the Negro Ensemble’s history and chose Ward’s one-act “Day of Absence,” the work that launched the New York company in 1965.

Called a “reverse minstrel show,” the satirical “Day of Absence” features black actors in whiteface performing the roles of the white residents in an imaginary Southern town on a day when all the black people have mysteriously disappeared. The only people left are the sick in hospital beds and the incarcerated in jail, while babies cry as unfamiliar parents care them for them, and various everyday jobs taken for granted go undone.

Under the direction of ensemble member Anthony Irons the cast — Ronald L. Conner,Ann JosephandKelvin Roston Jr., Jordan Arredondo,Meagan Dilworth,Bryant HayesandSonya Madrigal — play multiple roles in a town that has been upended by this desertion.

“When it was staged in 1965, it was a stingingly bold play about race relations in a country coming out of the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and protests,” Irons says, adding, “Using all this, Ward crafted this crazy, hilarious satire. He found the funny in all of the turmoil.”

Sanders contacted Ward and got his blessing to take some liberties with the play and modernize it in order to resonate more closely with audiences today.

“I think our production is trying to kind of bring it forward and say racism is not just out there in some Southern hick town in Mississippi but it’s also here,” Sanders says. “We have a great opportunity to not just honor Negro Ensemble but also to examine the world as it is today.”

In a world where “go back home, you don’t belong here” is a mantra often aimed at people of color, Irons agrees it was necessary to find a new direction in Ward’s decades-old play.

“I think it’s really interesting to have a play that takes the ‘what if’ scenario and puts it on stage,” says Irons. “We decided early on that we wanted a multi-cultural cast. Plus Ann Joseph will play the mayor a role traditionally played by a man.”

Ann Joseph, a founding ensemble member of Congo Square Theatre Company, stars in “Day of Absence,” which is being presented as part of the company’s 20th anniversary season.

Ann Joseph, a founding ensemble member of Congo Square Theatre Company, stars in “Day of Absence,” which is being presented as part of the company’s 20th anniversary season.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Time

Joseph, a founding ensemble member, remembers reading “Day of Absence” in college and says at first it “just seemed like one of those dusty old plays that’s been around forever.” But after reading it again, she found new meaning in the piece.

“I think it’s going to be one of those polarizing pieces,” she says. “You’re either going to hate it or really love it. It will stir up a lot of conversations.”

Right out of the gate in 2000, Congo Square had a hit with a staging of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson”; many other acclaimed productions followed. Wilson (who died in 2005) would become an important mentor to the company. “He was our biggest funder, our biggest supporter, our biggest advocate,” Irons says.

Artistic director Samuel Roberson Jr.’s death at 34 in 2017 was a hard blow for Congo Square both emotionally and artistically. Sanders admits it took some time for the company to get back on its feet.

“Sam really was a turning point for us and to have that stop when we were trying to grow was a tricky situation,” says Sanders. “What do we do now? What would Sam want? But now we are getting back on track and I think heading in an exciting direction.”

Joseph concurs that it’s an exciting time to be part of Congo Square as it heads into its next 20 years.

“I remember early on how invincible we all kind of felt, this feeling that what we were doing was so important. It quickly felt like we were doing the right thing and it still feels like we’re doing the right thing. We felt like a super heroes and that we could really make a difference. None of that has really changed except,” she adds with a laugh, “we’re just older and more tired now.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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