As is usually the case with Jackie Taylor productions, music is at the forefront; however, in her latest show, The BlackWhite Love Play (The Story of Chaz & Roger Ebert), now playing at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, love and romance take center stage.
Directed, produced and written by Taylor (with permission from Chaz Ebert), the story centers on the relationship and marriage of the late award-winning film critic Roger Ebert and his wife.
We learn about the origins of their courtship, including their initial encounter in 1989 at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (although in Mr. Ebert’s version of the story, they met at a “restaurant”) and their first date at the Lyric Opera to see Tosca. Despite Chaz (played by Rashada Dawan) noting that Roger (Kevin Pollack) wasn’t exactly her type, other dates followed, and through his persistence, they soon became an item. There are also glimpses of their social life including their shared love of music, specifically, blues, R&B, a little hip-hop and a lot of gospel. It is worth noting that The BlackWhite Love Play is presented in ancient Greek style, and Taylor’s song choices that include Al Jarreau’s “We’re in this Love Together” and “Hello” by Lionel Richie are perfectly appropriate.
It is through this lens that Taylor effectively illustrates the Eberts’ mutual adoration and respect for each other, even if through the script, things sometimes seem a bit too idyllic.
The story evolves to reveal what is already known (especially for lifelong Chicagoans) or is pretty much ‘Googleable’ about the couple; e.g., Chaz, a native of the city’s west side, leaving her successful law practice to manage her husband’s business affairs on a full-time basis, and how, when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, she devoted all of her time to care for him.
If the play came off too sappy for some, the “sweet” turned “sour” when it is disclosed that they had a major disagreement in 1995 when the OJ Simpson verdict was announced: He didn’t understand why [some] black people rejoiced and she frustratingly explained and reiterated the contentious relationship between blacks and the justice system. And while the Simpson saga undoubtedly caused strife in many relationships, for them, the resolution is wrapped in a neat bow, so much so, that you have to wonder if the two of them even discussed more about the case.
While the play is very “Chaz-centric,” and of course, all 24 years of their marriage couldn’t be covered in the production, the big elephant in the room was the minimal amount of time given to Ebert’s illustrious career. What films did they love? Was there a movie they would watch over and over together? Which ones did they both give a “thumbs down” to? It is both surprising and disappointing that this fact isn’t touched upon, especially since he was only the world’s most revered movie critic ever.
As stars of the show, Dawan and Pollack seemed a tad uncomfortable and lacked chemistry in the beginning; however, by the second act, they seemed more settled in their roles, so much so, that during the final curtain, the real Chaz Ebert told Dawan she played her better than she could play herself. Ironically, Pollack was more alive during these later scenes; he showed more genuine emotion during the period where Ebert was no longer able to speak.
The BlackWhite Love Play, at its core, is a true love story; and through the strength, adversity and never-ending loyalty, we see one couple, who despite numerous challenges, prevailed until the end.
See The BlackWhite Love Play Thursdays through Sundays through November 15 at the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street. Show times vary; tickets are $55-$65 and are on sale at the box office or online. For more information, call 773-769-4451.
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