To tell the truth: 2019 in theater | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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To tell the truth: 2019 in theater

Four plays that recast history—collective and personal—with searing defiance.

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To pick the most memorable moments or productions in Chicago theater any year is a daunting endeavor. With hundreds of shows covered by over 15 Reader writers during this past year, too many will be overlooked. But the productions below all had a common theme, and one that felt present in many other shows: the urgent need to tell unvarnished truths in ways both poetic and direct, raw and raucous. These stories were also leavened with hope for redemption, but the kind that only comes after tearing down the false narratives that have shaped our collective and personal histories.

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf

Court Theatre

The late Ntozake Shange's visionary 1976 choreopoem about the lives of Black women in America just finished a revival at New York's Public Theatre, but Court's production (directed by Seret Scott, who was in the original Broadway staging) was, as Sheri Flanders called it in her Reader review, "a transcendent theatrical experience." The eight Black women telling these stories all provided, as Flanders noted, "stunning feminist interrogation of subjects like love, identity, infidelity, body image, and abuse with a nuance and specificity that modern media often boils down to the empty calories of 'girl power.'" —Kerry Reid

Dana H.

Goodman Theatre

It doesn't get more raw and to-the-bone than hearing a woman telling an incredible and searing story about surviving abuse. When the woman is the playwright's own mother, the stakes feel even higher. In Dana H., Lucas Hnath honored his mother's experiences as a survivor of a months-long kidnapping ordeal over 20 years ago by using recordings of the real Dana's voice, to which the astonishing Deirdre O'Connell lip-synched. What may sound gimmicky on the page became a gripping narrative and an exploration of both how trauma causes us to disassociate, and how seldom abused women are believed. (Dana's captor, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, hoodwinked cops more than once, even as Dana, bruised and silent, stood by him.) Yet by the end of this gut punch of a show, we get a glimpse of healing as Dana—who works as a hospice counselor—tells us, "A person who can be an empathetic witness can bring healing." I can't think of a better description for why theater matters in these times. —Kerry Reid

Cambodian Rock Band

Victory Gardens Theater

At the close of the first act of Victory Gardens's magnificent production of Lauren Yee's unforgettable Cambodian Rock Band, the seven-member ensemble unleashed a cover of Dengue Fever's "One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula." The music was all fire and joy, the bass-heavy, string-screaming, thunderous essence of rock and roll. Or so it was until the music was overtaken by the sounds of obliteration: helicopter rotors thrumming, the crunch of rolling tanks, both becoming ever louder until the band was engulfed. Yee's musical drama was an ode to the two million (roughly—no one really knows the exact number) Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge, a tragedy of such brutal scope it's almost impossible to wrap your mind around. But in that first act closer, director Marti Lyons's cast made the devastation visceral, understandable, and impossible to tune out. In both words and music, Yee put Pol Pot's genocidal devastation in stark, uncompromising terms. Yet for all the tragedy that propelled Cambodian Rock Band, there was no denying the drama's ultimate takeaway: art and artists can never be wholly snuffed out. Yee made resilience blare from the amps, even as tragedy came for her characters. —Catey Sullivan

True West

Steppenwolf Theatre

Embedded deep within Sam Shepard's antiwestern, Austin (Jon Michael Hill) has a bit of dialogue that burns straight through the mask of heroism that made John Wayne a star. It's a passage that eviscerates the fake cowboy's acting ("acting" is more accurate) and all the noxious, white-male-supremacist machismo Wayne stood for. It was an unforgettable moment in a drama packed with them, and it exposed the centuries of genocidal racism that fueled the notion of Manifest Destiny. The mockery didn't explicitly invoke the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans or the slavery of African Americans that bankrolled many a (white) westward-ho expedition. Hill's subversive, hilarious delivery made all that clear nonetheless: John Wayne, and everything he and his ubiquitous brand of American history stood for, is straight bullshit. The moment captured all that was brilliant about Steppenwolf's production, which also starred Namir Smallwood as Austin's brother, Lee. Before True West delivers its final, shocking moment, the brothers destroy both the desert home they're holed up in and the history most of us were taught in school. Their drama is rooted in hard truths, the kind that are all too rarely taught in class. —Catey Sullivan  v

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