Thaddeus and Slocum: a story in black and white

Thaddeus and Slocum: a story in black and white
Travis-Turner-Thaddeus-Samuel-Taylor-Slocum.-Photo-by-Liz-Lauren.

A lot has changed since 1908–much of which we’d like to forget ever happened.

But playwright Kevin Douglas, a Lookingglass Theatre ensemble member, doesn’t want us to forget. Douglas, who’s black, recalls growing up watching old comedies and movie musicals. As he grew older, he says, “I began to realize that most of the people in these movies didn’t look like me, except for slaves, maids, butlers and Sidney Potier.”

In order to explore this serious issue, he created a well thought-out snapshot of early 20th century America in his world premiere play “Thaddeus and Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure,” now running at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre.

The show, co-directed by ensemble member J. Nicole Brooks and Krissy Vanderwarker, is staged in a style that audiences have come to expect from Lookingglass–employing amazing music, song, dance and what has become a Lookingglass’ trademark–their outstanding acrobatic performances.

The Douglas’ play gets right to the divided heart of American culture–at a time when color was more important than talent.

Collette Pollard’s scenic design features an authentic bistro setting with tables and chairs casually placed in front of the stage surrounded by thrust seating.

Monica Raymund, Sharrises Hamilton, Tosin Morohunfola. Photo: Liz Lauren

Monica Raymund, Sharrises Hamilton, Tosin Morohunfola. Photo: Liz Lauren

The play centers around two street performers, Thaddeus (Travis Turner) and Slocum (Samuel Taylor), best friends since childhood–one black, Thaddeus, and one white, Slocum.

Although color differences didn’t matter to Thaddeus and Slocum, they did to world of other people.

Monica Raymund. Photo: Liz Lauren

Monica Raymund. Photo: Liz Lauren

Monica Raymund, (who plays Gabriella Dawson on NBC’s “Chicago Fire”) adds an important note to the storyline as the beautiful semi-classical singer Isabella, a black woman, who is able to pass for white and appear in the big houses. However she lives in constant fear of being found out.

Adding to the mix, the feisty black vaudeville couple–Nellie (Sharriese Hamilton) and Zeke (Tosin Morohunfola)–performers at the black Pekin Theatre, who share a common bond with Isabella and Thaddeus.

As Thaddeus and Slocum struggle for acceptance into the big-time vaudeville circuit which in Chicago (where the story takes place) was the Majestic Theatre (now the Privatebank Theatre on East Monroe) they had to live and play by the rules of the times. The “white” theatres only allowed one black act per show and the Majestic already had its quota.

Although there were black vaudeville theatres–three of which were in Chicago–the pair was intent on appearing at the Majestic.

While they dreamed of the big time, they continued to perform their act on the sidewalk outside of the Majestic–hoping to be noticed.

Finally, Slocum who has become more and more frustrated devises a plan. At first, Thaddeus is reluctant but eventually agrees to audition with Slocum for a spot at the Majestic in “blackface”–a common and popular act in the early 20th century where white people wore “blackface” to imitate black people.

The plan works and Thaddeus and Slocum are able to get a gig at the Majestic. Of course, trouble follows. The show does not sugarcoat the events that occur but plays them out using a thoughtful balance of comedy laced with the deadly serious.

Tensions build as the drama unfolds to its final jarring moment.

Tickets: Online or by phone at (312) 337-0665

Where: Lookingglass Theatre, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.

When: Now through August 14

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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