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Theater 2019-20: Victory Gardens will churn American melting pot, the stuff of our totality

Submitted by on Sep 9, 2019 – 10:37 pm

Janet Ulrich Brooks portrays a personal advice columnist in an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s book “Tiny Beautiful Things,” the season opener at Victory Gardens Theatre. (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Third in a series of season previews: Provocative line-up, including a world premiere, explores a cross-section of America’s histories.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

“Diversity is what makes this country unique,” says Victory Gardens Theatre artistic director Chay Yew. “As Americans, we inherit all American histories. Our coming season is about our diversity – the differences that represent our totality.”

Recasting the same point more explicitly, he adds: “Ten years ago, we could disagree and still experience something together. We can’t sit down together any more. I’m pained by this. Surely, we can live next to each other and agree to disagree.”

Highlighted by the world premiere of Madhuri Shekar’s “Dhaba on Devon Avenue,” which turns on the volatile transition of a neighborhood restaurant, Victory Gardens’ socially aware season takes flight with a play about the revelations of a personal advice columnist. Then it’s on to an African American pastor’s need to connect with a troubling son, an aggressive response in the me-too era and a desperate attempt to escape the long shadow of the Internet.

The 2019-20 season in brief:
  • “Tiny Beautiful Things,” adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos from the book by Cheryl Strayed. (Sept. 6-Oct. 13): Drawing on Strayed’s experience as a personal advice columnist under the pseudonym Sugar, this staging explores the questions and answers she published online in the years 2010-12. When the struggling writer was asked to take over the unpaid, anonymous position of advice columnist, Strayed used empathy and her personal experiences to help those seeking guidance for obstacles both large and small. It’s a play about reaching when you’re stuck, healing when you’re broken, and finding the courage to take on questions that have no answers. “In a world where we so often see a lack empathy, this play is about reaching out, sharing and connecting again,” says Yew. “It’s like going on a CTA bus and hearing people tell you about themselves.”
  • Playwright Lee Edward Colston II

    “The First Deep Breath” by Lee Edward Colston II (Nov. 15-Dec. 22): Originally developed as part of Victory Gardens’ 2018 Ignition Festival of New Plays, “The First Deep Breath” tells the story of Pastor Albert Jones, who is planning a special church service to honor his late daughter Diane on the sixth anniversary of her death. But when his eldest son, Abdul-Malik, returns home from prison, the first family of Mother Bethel Baptist Church is forced to confront a tangle of long-buried secrets. Each member of the Jones clan fights to stay afloat despite the danger that a family that stays together can also drown together. “This is a delicious Chicago play, tricky at the core,” says Yew. “It’s the family of a black pastor, and everyone has to behave and be perfect. So a recently incarcerated son comes home, and the pastor has to deal with several issues, homosexuality among them. It’s a little like (Tracy Letts’) ‘August: Osage County.’”

  • “How To Defend Yourself” by Lily Padilla (Jan. 24-Feb. 23, 2020): Seven college students gather for a self-defense workshop after a sorority sister is raped.They learn to use their bodies as weapons. They learn to fend off attackers. They learn not to be a victim. Mastering self-defense becomes a channel for their rage, anxiety, confusion, trauma and desire. Padilla’s play explores what you want, how to ask for it and the insidious ways that rape culture steals one’s body and sense of belonging. “The author shines a light on one of the dominant themes of the day,” says Yew. “The plays addresses the essential question: What are we going to do about this?”
  • Playwright Madhuri Shekar

    “Dhaba on Devon Avenue” by Madhuri Shekar (World premiere, March 27-April 26, 2020): Dhaba Canteen has been a Devon Avenue institution since the ’60s, with their delicious Sindhi food transporting you back to the halcyon days of undivided India. Now it’s on the verge of bankruptcy. And the family that has run it for generations is ready to go to war over its fate. It’s “King Lear” meets “The Cherry Orchard” in this Chicago story of fathers and daughters, of legacy and of survival at all costs. “Chicago has the third-largest South Asian population in the country,” notes Yew. “Here, the patriarch hands over the family restaurant to two daughters, one of whom doesn’t care anything about it while the other wants to take it in a new direction. It becomes a classic conflict of generations: What’s best for the family, the community and the individual?”

  • “The Right to be Forgotten” by Sharyn Rothstein (May 29-June 28, 2020): The Internet never forgets. A young man’s mistake at age 17 haunts him online a decade later. Desperate for a normal life, he goes to extraordinary lengths to erase his indiscretion. But freedom of information is big business, and the tech companies aren’t going down without a fight. Secrets, lies and political backstabbing abound in this allegory about privacy, social media and human forgiveness in the age of the Internet. Comments Yew: “How do we find a way to outrun the shadow of the Internet? What if you are accused of something – is your entire life defined by that?”

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