Theater Review: Uplifting Celebration in Black Ensemble Theater’s ‘The Black White Love Play’

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CHICAGO – The love story of a prominent Chicago celebrity couple becomes the basis for a metaphoric and tuneful celebration about courage and coming together. “The Black White Love Play: The Story of Chaz & Roger Ebert” – written and directed by Black Ensemble Theater’s Jackie Taylor – portrays the film critic and the civil rights lawyer in their time, but also creates an atmosphere of emotion through song, sorrow and jubilation. Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 4.0/5.0
Play Rating: 4.0/5.0

This is not a straightforward retelling of the relationship of Chaz and Roger Ebert. It does contain the facts – their meeting, the courtship, the marriage and the trials of Roger’s illness – but the couple is used more as a foreground for the bigger issues that their coupledom represented. Songs about love, racial harmony and spirituality are performed behind the story by a singing greek chorus. The whole thing works because it is so sincere, and the lead performances are magnetic. “The Black White Love Story” might not be what you expect, but it can give you what you need.

Kevin Pollack, Rashada Dawan
Chaz Ebert (Rashada Dawan) and Roger Ebert (Kevin Pollack) Celebrate Life in the ‘Black White Love Play’
Photo credit: Danny Nichols for the Black Ensemble Theater

Roger Ebert (Kevin Pollack) was the preeminent film critic in America in the late 1980s, but the one thing that has eluded him in his life was a love connection. Enter Chaz Hammel-Smith (Rashada Dawan), a dedicated African American civil rights lawyer, and Ebert is smitten almost immediately. Their relationship deepens, and the couple is united in marriage. Their story after the nuptials is one of joy, travel and family (Chaz’s family is huge, Roger is brought into a new life because of them). In the 2000s, Roger is stricken by debilitating cancer. Chaz’s role becomes that of caregiver, until Roger – the love of her life – passes away in April of 2013.

The play is a cursory glance into all the vital points of Roger and Chaz, but mostly it celebrates their love as a universal example for harmony. The songs – familiar pop and gospel – are both uplifting and inspiring, and never seem intrusive. Jackie Taylor has written and staged a different way to communicate the Black Ensemble Theater’s philosophy of eliminating racism, through a couple who lived that truth, and went through a trial of illness and loss that brought it to a breaking point. The play is a reminder of commitment through all points in a deep and loving relationship – a celebration of successes of course, but also a courage under fire when illness care becomes necessary.

Kevin Pollack is a revelation as Roger Ebert. Whether you knew the critic through his writing and TV appearances, or personally, Pollack brings him back to life in a performance that is confident and soulful. He particularly soars when he’s doing something you wouldn’t expect Roger to do (singing and dancing, but I’m told RE loved to do that as well!), but still projects a profound dignity and grace to the familiar personality. Pollack also has a magnificent singing voice, and brings the character to the heights after his passing, with a heart rending gospel voice from the beyond.

Kevin Pollack, Rashada Dawan
Chaz and and Roger Ebert Cope with Illness in the ‘Black White Love Play’
Photo credit: Danny Nichols for the Black Ensemble Theater

Rashada Dawan as Chaz is the glue of the play, and takes on that role with the same strength and purpose that Chaz herself had displayed at Roger’s side during his illness. The frustration, the sadness and difficulties are all on display in the second act as the cancer takes hold, and Dawan also gets her opportunity to sing as a symbolic gesture toward the situation. The chorus behind the couple is also notable, handling the various song styles of gospel, pop, ballads and even opera in accordance with the actions portrayed, and the multi-level platforms of the stage at the Black Ensemble Theater provides a perfect exposition setting for the story.

Even though its not a true life history of the long relationship between the film critic and the civil rights lawyer, it is a song, dance and performance staging that honors them in their life together, and reminds us of the life in all of us.

“The Black White Love Play: The Story of Chaz & Roger Ebert” is performed by the Black Ensemble Theater of Chicago, Bar, 4450 North Clark Street, Chicago – Thursdays at 7:30pm, and Fridays/Saturdays at 8pm and Saturday/Sundays at 3pm through November 15th, 2015. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets. Featuring Kevin Pollack and Rashada Dawan. Written and directed by Jackie Taylor. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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