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2016 in theater was wildly convulsive on- and offstage

Controversies over abuse, alleged druggings, and “whitewashing” roiled even as Shakespeare 400 Chicago soared.

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I think it's safe to assume that nobody in Chicago's theater community had a worse 2016 than Darrell Cox and Joe Jahraus. Or deserved it more. Decades of bad behavior caught up with them in June, when the Reader published an exhaustive report by Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt, detailing physical and psychological abuse carried out by Cox (with Jahraus in the role of enabling sidekick) at their off-Loop home, Profiles Theatre. Reportedly aided by a crisis-management PR firm, Cox made a few wan stabs at saving the situation. But community outrage was so intense—not to say creative, protesters papering the theater's storefront with Reader covers—that Profiles closed down less than a week after the story appeared.

The pair's comeuppance was just the most lurid story in a wildly convulsive theater year, during which loads of business-as-usual assumptions were called into question or trashed outright.

The Profiles exposé was preceded, in May, by another Reader story: Brianna Wellen's look at claims that Chicago comics and improvisers were being drugged during open-mike events by a person or persons unknown. Although both men and women reported possible mickey slippings, the scare helped trigger a backlash against the harassment and abuse of female artists in particular.

The soul-searching got more comprehensive in October, when Peter Kim walked away from a spot in the current Second City E.T.C. revue rather than continue to put up with what he described in a Chicago magazine essay as "increasingly racist, homophobic, and misogynistic" heckling, directed not only at the people onstage but at audience members as well. The most visible sign of a response to Kim's concerns is a literal sign: Second City patrons now encounter a notice as they enter the theater, declaring a "zero tolerance policy" toward hate speech.

But that's not all. Not even close.

Porchlight Theatre's In the Heights - GRETCHEN KELLY
  • Gretchen Kelly
  • Porchlight Theatre's In the Heights

The late summer seemed wholly given over to a furor around the casting for Porchlight Music Theatre's production of In the Heights. The first Broadway hit for Lin-Manuel Miranda—he who went on to ride the zeitgeist big time with HamiltonIn the Heights is a musical about various residents of the Latino-heavy Washington Heights neighborhood in upper Manhattan. Porchlight filled the role of Usnavi, Miranda's twentysomething Dominican-American lead character, with Jack DeCesare, an actor of Italian-American descent. Naturally, those who thought they had a greater claim on authenticity (and a greater need for the work) were riled, calling the choice an example of "whitewashing"—the appropriation of brown or black or generally non-European-toned stories by Caucasian actors.

The situation got so fraught that a "town hall" meeting was called by ALTA, the Alliance of Latinx Theater Artists of Chicago, to discuss it and find routes to action. On an off night at Victory Gardens Theater, an onstage panel offered comments ranging from the truly explorative to the deeply cynical and drew a similar spectrum of responses from the SRO crowd. DeCesare's fellow cast members wrote a statement of solidarity with him that was read at the meeting; one young attendee suggested that auditioners be required to disclose their ethnic history, only to be reminded by an older one with a better grasp of history that Actors' Equity rules forbid such practices precisely because it's discriminatory. Then they broke up into small groups.

Aside from consciousness raising, perhaps the most useful result of this year's traumas was the founding and/or growth of organizations dedicated to aiding traditionally vulnerable and excluded communities. The aforementioned ALTA is one; the Chicago Inclusion Project deals in diversity too. Women in Comedy and Not in Our House came forcefully out of the turmoil regarding abuse.

On the other hand, a theater-world version of the Committee of Public Safety appears to have formed on social media, its would-be Robespierres and Dantons carrying out electronic, ad hominem guillotinings against anyone who dares to disagree with them. Turns out even the cause of inclusiveness has its ugly underbelly.

But then, on yet another hand—the one that holds the reason for all that's happened this year—there are the theaters and their shows.

In my 2015 wrap-up I conferred an Annus Mirabilis Award on Theater Wit, for what you might call sustained achievement: "presenting no less than three of the best dark comedies of 2015." To tell the truth, I just made the award up as I was sitting there writing. But I've got a winner this time around as well, so maybe we'll make it a thing. The Annus Mirabilis for 2016 goes to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, its sustained achievement being the crucial role it played in pulling together Shakespeare 400 Chicago, a citywide festival memorializing Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death.

Michael Patrick Thornton in the Gift Theatre's Richard III - CLAIRE DEMOS
  • Claire Demos
  • Michael Patrick Thornton in the Gift Theatre's Richard III

Among other contributions, CST hosted companies from a dozen nations, staging works that either select from or riff on the Shakespearean canon. A good percentage of the entries were delightful (Piya Beharupiya, for instance: a goofy, mostly Hindi version of Twelfth Night by Company Theatre Mumbai) and one was genuinely great (the Belarus Free Theatre King Lear). But I'd still have been grateful if they'd all been turkeys, because—both this year and in efforts over a long period—CST performed the essential, shockingly neglected task of putting us in contact with world theater.

Speaking of Shakespeare, one of the indelible performances of 2016 was Michael Patrick Thornton in the title role of Gift Theatre's Richard III, using his paralytic disability to make the bad king unnervingly good. A couple other breakthroughs: Alex Weisman as the crazed teenage puppeteer in Victory Gardens' Hand to God and Rough House Theater's Ubu the King—which, as it happens, also makes wild and expert use of puppets.

Oh, and this was the year we got Hamilton.  v

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