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Theater 2014-15: Greek tragedy, 2 premieres, musical spell excitement in Court’s 60th year

Submitted by on Aug 28, 2014 – 5:46 pm

Jerod Haynes, as Bigger Thomas, in the Court Theatre-American Blues Theater production of 'Native Son.' (Joe Mazza)Tenth in a series of season previews: New adaptation of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” opens series that will include classics scholar Nicholas Rudall’s new translation of Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis.”

By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz

You can hear the phrase resonate in his voice when Charles Newell, artistic director of Court Theatre, says the company wanted to do something “very exciting” this season in observance of its 60th anniversary. It has turned out to be not one thing but more like a menu, spanning centuries and cultures, classics to modern explorations.

The season opens with Nambi E. Kelley’s world-premiere adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son,” about a young black man trapped by desperate circumstances in a white world. The project is a joint venture by Court and American Blues Theater.

Former Court Theatre artistic director Nicholas Rudall (1971-1994) and current artistic director Charles Newell. (Joe Mazza)“When we did ‘The Invisible Man’ (adapted from the novel by Ralph Ellison) in 2011, Nambi and (American Blues artistic director) Wendy Whiteside saw the show and suggested we collaborate on ‘Native Son,’” says Newell. “What Nambi has done is quite special. Rather than simply putting the novel on stage, she has created a true stage adaptation. She theatricalizes the notion of how people perceive themselves by means of a double consciousness – how the white community sees them and how they see themselves.”

Then Newell and company flash back to ancient Greece with Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis,” the tale of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, in a fresh translation by Nicholas Rudall, a University of Chicago classics scholar who served as Court’s director from 1971-94.

“We wanted to honor Nick, and this will kick off a three-year cycle of Greek plays about the fall of the house of Atreus,” says Newell. Next season brings Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” and the series concludes with Rudall’s translation of Sophocles’ “Electra.”

“This is the kind of a work Court should be doing, the kind our Center for Classic Theater should be fueling,” says Newell. “Iphigenia” marks the first time in his 21 years at the Court helm that Newell has directed a classical Greek play.

The season’s second world premiere brings back the play-writing team of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, creators of Court’s twice-mounted hit “An Iliad,” with a dramatization of how the Bible was developed — “The Good Book.”

Samuel Beckett’s absurdist meditation on the meaning of life, “Waiting for Godot,” moves the season toward its finale on quite a different note with “The Secret Garden,” the Marsha Norman-Lucy Simon musical based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett about an orphaned girl who finds hope in a surprising place.

“About a decade ago, the leaders of Court and I envisioned a center for classic theater and an agenda that focused on reimagining classic works, the African American canon and the American musical,” says Newell. “This season reflects every one of those goals.”

The 2014-15 season in brief:

  • Actress and playwright Nambi E. Kelley has adapted Richard Wright's iconic novel 'Native Son' for the theater. (nambikelley.com)“Native Son” adapted by Nambi E. Kelley from the novel by Richard Wright (World premiere co-produced with American Blues Theater, Sept. 20-Oct. 19): Suffocating in rat-infested poverty on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s, 20-year-old Bigger Thomas struggles to find a place for himself in a world whose prejudice has shut him out. After taking a job in a wealthy white man’s house, Bigger unwittingly unleashes a series of events that violently and irrevocably seal his fate. “When we look at what’s going on in Missouri and the daily violence right here in Chicago, there’s nothing more timely in our country than this play,” says Newell. “The artistic investigation into the issues of ‘Native Son’ is absolutely necessary.”
  • Bust of Euripides (Clementino)“Iphigenia in Aulis” by Euripides, translated by Nicholas Rudall (Nov. 15-Dec. 7): As the Greek army restlessly paces the silent shores of Aulis, King Agamemnon is faced with a harrowing decision. In return for the winds that would carry his army to victory over Troy, the goddess Artemis has demanded sacrifice of the king’s own daughter, Iphigenia. “Iphigenia in Aulis” is the first installment in Court’s three-year cycle of Greek plays. Call it the Greek curse: Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia, then in Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” (coming next season), the king’s angry wife Clytemnestra murders him, whereupon in Sophocles’ “Electra” (2016-17) Agamemnon’s son (Electra’s brother) Orestes returns home to avenge his father by slaughtering Clytemnestra, her lover Aegisthus and basically the entire household. Says Newell: “After ‘An Iliad,’ we wanted to take the next step forward with Greek drama, and we had never done the Iphigenia cycle.”
  • Ron OJ Parson directs 'Waiting for Godot'“Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett (Jan. 24-Feb. 15, 2015):  On a lonely country road, beneath a barren tree, two vagabonds wait for a man named Mr. Godot. As the evening unfolds, a desperate, humorous and unchanging universe is revealed that has delighted and challenged audiences for over half a century.  In this entirely African-American enterprise, three favorite regulars on the Court stage — A.C. Smith, Allen Gilmore and Alfred Wilson — join resident artist Ron OJ Parson, who directs.  “This play works in so many ways, and the more simply it’s presented the better,” says Newell. “It has such depth and humanity – and as an audience member, you bring so much of who you are to fill in the blanks.”
  • Lisa Peterson, co-author and director of 'The Good Book,' a world premiere at Court Theatre in 2015.“The Good Book” by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare (World premiere, March 28-April 19, 2015: The playwrights weave stories of devotion and doubt in this re-imagining of the place where human faith and divine inspiration intersect: the Bible. As 13-year-old Connor tries to reconcile his identity with his dream of becoming a priest and modern-day Biblical scholar and Miriam wrestles to resolve her crisis of faith, they lead us through an exploration on how the Bible was conceived. From ancient Judea to medieval Ireland to suburban America, the play unfolds as a journey through the most influential book in Western history. “Lisa and Denis were worried that they might offend people,” says Newell, “so I asked Margaret Mitchell, the dean of the University of Chicago School of Divinity, what she thought. She was quite cheerful about it. She said, ‘You’re definitely going to offend people.’ It’s about people struggling with their faith, even someone who has devoted a lifetime to studying and understanding the Bible.”
  • Music director Doug Peck will collaborate on the Marsha Norman-Lucy Simon musical 'The Secret Garden' at Court Theatre in 2015.“The Secret Garden,” musical book and lyrics by Marsha Norman with music by Lucy Simon, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, May 30-June 21, 2015): After a vicious cholera outbreak in the British Raj claims the lives of both her parents, 10-year-old Mary Lennox is sent back to England to live at her estranged uncle’s estate. Orphaned and alone, Mary finds herself haunted not only by the ghosts of her own past, but by those of her melancholy uncle, Archibald Craven. As Mary begins to find her way through her uncle’s maze of secretsshe makes an incredible discovery that unlocks a wellspring of hope and renewal for them both. Newell will be the stage director, with musical direction by Doug Peck, his collaborator on Court’s recent production of “Porgy and Bess.” Says Newell: “ ‘Porgy’ was such a singular experience for us, and we thought, ‘Where do we go from here?’ This is a wonderful story with incredible moments of emotional impact at unexpected times. It’s about loss, the hurt the world can inflict upon you and the need for catharsis and rebirth.”

Court Theatre on the campus of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park

Getting there:

Founded in 1955 “to create innovative productions of classic plays that are thought-provoking, character-driven and theatrically enduring,” Court Theatre is located at 5535 S. Ellis Ave. in Hyde Park on the University of Chicago campus.

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