Playbill, November 2017 — The first time Jimmy Buffett saw a rehearsal of Escape to Margaritaville, the new musical based on his songs, it was pretty obvious that he was having a good time. “He was smiling and laughing,” recalls Greg Garcia, co-writer of the musical’s book, who was sitting just in front of Buffett. “I kept looking back at him, and he was just loving it. Afterward, I go, ‘That’s the first Jimmy Buffett concert that you’ve ever been to, isn’t it?’ And he looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Yeah, man! I see what the fuss is all about!’” …
Playbill, October 2017 — People love to root for the underdog. And who’s more of an underdog than a ragtag kid shouting “Extra!, Extra!” as he sells newspapers on the crowded streets of a big, dirty city? That’s a big part of the appeal of Newsies.
“It is an immigrant story,” says Aaron Thielen, artistic director of the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, which is producing the regional premiere of Disney’s Newsies, the stage adaptation of the 1992 Disney film. “You root for those kids because you see yourself—or your grandparents. There was a time when every family that came here had to fight to survive.” …
Playbill, September 2017 — On December 4, 1956, Sam Phillips—the record producer famed as the father of rock ’n’ roll—telephoned the Memphis Press-Scimitar with a hot tip. Acting quickly, the newspaper rushed a reporter and photographer over to Phillips’ little storefront recording studio, Sun Records.
The photo caption in the next day’s paper set the scene: “The only thing predictable about Elvis is that he’s unpredictable. Yesterday, Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins was cutting some new records at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio. … Elvis dropped in. So did Johnny Cash. Jerry Lee Lewis was already there.” The Press-Scimitar’s reporter remarked, “It was what you might call a barrel-house of fun.” …
Playbill, August 2017 — Plot spoilers aren’t a big worry with Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play Machinal. Just about every description of the expressionist drama says it was inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder, a Queens housewife who murdered her husband and was executed at New York’s Sing Sing. Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater, which is currently reviving the play through September 24, doesn’t bother hiding any of these facts. The theatre’s poster for Machinal shows an electric chair.
So, there isn’t really much suspense about how Machinal ends. It isn’t that kind of true-crime entertainment. “It is more about how she got there than what she did,” says Greenhouse’s artistic director, Jacob Harvey, who is directing the play. …
Playbill, July 2017 — Arts agencies consume a microscopic fraction of the $4 trillion U.S. budget. And yet government funding for the arts is controversial; calls to eliminate it never fully subside. But there was a time when the government did more than just provide grants. For a few years, the government actually had its own theatrical troupes, with Uncle Sam paying actors, directors, and playwrights to put on shows in New York, Chicago, and other cities. …
Playbill, June 2017 — A fence divides two backyards in Native Gardens, a new play at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. A white couple has lived for a long time on one side of the fence. On the other side, a Latino couple has just moved in. When you see that fence, it’s hard not to think of Donald Trump’s wall.
But playwright Karen Zacarias wrote her script a couple of years ago, when few people expected Trump to become president. By the time Native Gardens made its world premiere—in January 2016 at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park—Trump was leading polls in the Republican primaries, but he still seemed like a long shot to end up in the White House.
Now that Trump actually is president, will that change the way audiences perceive Zacarias’ comedy, as it receives its second production? Zacarias, an immigrant from Mexico who lives in Washington, D.C., pondered that question as she considered how much to revise Native Gardens for its Chicago run. …
Playbill, December 2016 — As the world marked the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, Chicago had good reason to boast. Even though it’s an ocean and half a continent away from Shakespeare’s home turf in England, the city hosted the largest celebration of the Bard in 2016.
“There’s really nothing that matches Shakespeare 400 Chicago,” says Jill Gage, referring to the year-long series of events that took place at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier and other venues around town. As that festival wraps up in December, Gage has curated an exhibit at the Newberry Library called Creating Shakespeare. Inside two galleries flanking the research library’s entrance, glass cases offer glimpses of rare books—including the Newberry’s very own copy of the First Folio, a massive tome that collected all of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, seven years after his death. Just seeing Shakespeare’s words printed in black ink on that yellowed, centuries-old paper is an eye-opening experience.
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine’s Chicago edition in April 2015.
Last fall, Marcus Gardley was supposed to be writing A Wonder in My Soul, a play revolving around a group of Chicago soul singers from the 1960s. It was scheduled to make its world premiere in April at Victory Gardens Theatre. But after writing a first draft, Gardley found himself thinking about a different story, one that was flashing across TV screens, Twitter, and the front pages of newspapers. “I was watching the news a lot,” he says. “I became obsessed with it.”
Gardley was riveted by news stories about Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death set off weeks of protests, and then more erupted when a grand jury failed to charge Wilson with any crime. Across the country, “black lives matter” became a rallying cry for people angry at what they saw as a pattern of police brutality toward African-Americans. Demonstrators filled the streets again when another grand jury decided against indicting a New York City officer in the death of Eric Garner, a black man who’d died after police put him in a chokehold. A video showed Garner saying, “I can’t breathe,” 11 times just before he died.
Gardley, a 37-year-old African-American playwright known for his poetic style, knows what it’s like to face suspicion and the threat of violence from gun-wielding cops. Several years ago, when officials in Berkeley, California, invited him to work on a community project there, police officers stopped him as he was walking down the street one night. “They came out of their cruiser with their guns drawn and had me on the ground,” Gardley recalls. “It was very devastating. They said I fit the description of a serial rapist in the neighborhood.” Gardley ended up getting apologies from Berkeley’s mayor and a police official.
As Gardley watched the turmoil resulting from the recent events in Missouri and New York, his thoughts about these issues began intruding on the play he was writing. “It was disturbing the narrative structure and disturbing the themes,” Gardley says. “I had a major block. I couldn’t continue to write the play.”
Gardley went to Victory Garden’s artistic director, Chay Yew, who was getting ready to direct A Wonder in My Soul. “I know this is crazy,” Gardley recalls saying, “but do you think I should take a stab at writing about what’s going on in the country right now?” It was a bold request. Nine months earlier, Victory Gardens had announced A Wonder in My Soul as part of its season schedule. And now Gardley was talking about writing an entirely different play — and getting it up on the stage in just a few months. How did Yew react? “His eyes got really big,” Gardley remembers. But Gardley says Yew quickly told him, “If that’s what you have to do, you should just go for it. That’s what it means to stand behind a writer.” Yew now says he was just doing what theaters should do. “You follow the artists.”
Victory Gardens announced in late January that A Wonder in My Soul had been scratched from the season schedule. In its place, Yew would direct a new play called An Issue of Blood. A press release explained that Gardley wrote this play “in response to recent events and social injustices.” But An Issue of Blood isn’t directly about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner or the protests they sparked. “I wanted to look at history and get behind why these laws were made, laws that protected certain people but also made other people feel like they weren’t protected at all. And so I started to read everything I could get my hands on about how laws were created in the United States, and what did this country look like before the Constitution.”
Gardley looked at books about the colonial era, including Anthony S. Parent Jr.’s Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740, where he found the true story of the first blacks who were brought to America — as indentured servants, not outright slaves. “What most people don’t know is that there was a large contingent of Irish slaves,” Gardley notes. “They joined forces with the African-Americans and they raised a revolt. They rebelled because the laws were changing.” Black indentured servants, who’d thought they would gain freedom and a piece of land after seven years of service, were told that they were now going to be slaves for the rest of their lives. “There were other laws changing — that you could kill an African-American person without any penalty,” Gardley says.
Those facts inspired Gardley’s script, which he describes as a mix of history, myth and African-American music from the colonial era. He thinks audiences will connect the dots between these events from almost 400 years ago and today’s controversies. “It’s so crystal-clear, it’s shocking,” he says. An Issue of Blood focuses on a free black woman in the colony of Virginia who plans to marry her son to the daughter of a powerful white planter as a symbol of peace between the races. The cast includes six-time Jeff Award winner E. Faye Butler, Tosin Morohunfola and Cleavant Derricks.
This isn’t the first time Victory Gardens has responded to the “black lives matter” protests. In December, two weeks after the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case, the theater hosted a one-night event called We Must Breathe, featuring poems and short plays inspired by the news, including one by Gardley. After the performance, audience members talked about the issues. And then, many of them marched out into the streets of Lincoln Park to protest. “People were looking for something to do that was productive, and to talk about how we feel,” says Victory Gardens’ associate artistic producer, Joanie Schultz, who directed We Must Breathe. “It was really beautiful to be in that space, in that sort of community that we created for that night. It was actually one of the most profound and powerful moments of my theatrical life so far.”
Gardley, a native of Oakland who has also spent time on the East Coast, senses a different kind of racial tension in Chicago, where he has lived since he became a member of the Victory Garden playwrights ensemble two years ago. “Chicago is extremely segregated,” he says. “I feel like when I go into certain businesses on the North Side, there’s always a glance that is a little chilling. I don’t really get that anywhere else. Once I talk — and once they get to know what I want and that kind of thing — I think it goes away. But I sense it, and it’s not just me. Other artists I talk to feel the same way.”
Last year, Victory Gardens bused in several groups of young people from the South Side to attend performances of The Gospel of Lovingkindness, Gardley’s play about two Chicago mothers whose lives are shattered by a homicide. “For a lot of them, this was the first play they ever saw,” Gardley says. “They had a really great time and had a lot of questions about how to make a play. And so we decided to start a very small theater company with them, to teach them the very basics of theater-making in Englewood.”
Schultz, who has been watching as Gardley and Yew bounce ideas off each other for An Issue of Blood, is thrilled to see Victory Gardens taking such swift action on current events. Theaters often get locked into the schedules they announce to subscribers far ahead of time. But it’s actually possible to write a script, design a show, rehearse it and get it into the stage fairly quickly, she says. “It takes much longer to make a movie,” Schultz says. “Live theater has an opportunity that other mediums don’t necessarily have. We should be a place for people to come talk about and think about what is going on in their world right now.”
As the “black lives matter” protests made headlines, Gardley felt curious about the thoughts of an uncle and a cousin who work as police officers in California. But, he says, “I can’t even have a discussion with them. That blue wall of silence and that brotherhood is so intense.” Gardley hopes his play can spark the dialogue that needs to happen. “That’s how you move forward: conversation. That’s why I do theater.”
Photo at top: Playwright Marcus Gardley with Victor Garden’s artistic director, Chay Yew, at a reading of An Issue of Blood. Photo by Michael Courier.
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in 2014.
In 1902, Parisians laughed whenever they heard the name “Chicago.” In cafes, they joked about that city in America where some judge had just ruled that the popular French play Cyrano de Bergerac was a work of plagiarism. Incroyable! And even more unbelievable, that American judge said French playwright Edmond Rostond had stolen his smash-hit romance from … a Chicago real-estate developer? Sacre bleu! How could such an outlandish allegation be true? “It must be April Fool’s Day in Chicago,” world-famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt sniffed in disbelief.
But it was no joke. A federal court official in Chicago had indeed compared Rostand’s 1897 play with a more obscure script—The Merchant Prince of Cornville by Samuel Eberly Gross. Sure, it seemed unlikely that one of France’s most respected authors would lift major plot points from a virtually unknown book by a real-estate tycoon who’d built more than 10,000 working-class houses in Chicago and the suburbs. But that’s exactly what the court decided. There were dozens of similarities between the two plays. Cyrano was “a clear and unmistakable piracy,” the official concluded.
Both plays were about one man who writes love letters and speeches to help another man win a woman’s heart—even though the man writing the letters is just as much in love with her. In both plays, the woman stands on a balcony as the two men try to woo her from below. Both plays have literary duels using wordplay instead of swordplay. Both have key characters named Hercules. And big noses feature prominently in both.
Gross decided to sue when he saw the Chicago premiere of Cyrano in 1898. He’d written his own play back in the 1870s. Gross had shopped around his script, but no one was interested. He tried again in 1896, publishing 250 leather-bound copies. The Merchant Prince of Cornville finally made its premiere at a London theater that year, but was quickly forgotten.
“I never heard of Mr. Gross nor his comedy until he began action against me,” Rostand insisted in a deposition, testifying in Paris as part of the legal proceedings in Chicago. Rostand also pointed out that Cyrano de Bergerac was an actual person who’d lived in France in the 1600s. Rostand said he’d based his play on real history.
The court found no proof that Rostand had read Gross’ book, but it was at least possible he’d seen it. Gross had given his script to theatrical producers in Paris, including the French actor Benoît-Constant Coquelin—who later starred in Cyrano de Bergerac. Was that just a coincidence? “There’s a man named Gross—bah!—in Chicago, who says Rostand stole Cyrano from his play,” Coquelin said. “It’s ridiculous. The fellow is ridiculous.”
Judge Christian Kohlsaat rewarded a mere $1 to Gross, but his ruling effectively halted U.S. productions of Rostand’s play for years to come. “Cyrano shall not be played without my permission,” Gross said. Over in France, Rostand ridiculed the Chicago court ruling. “I am ready to admit I took … all our 17th-century history from Eberly Gross of Chicago,” he jested.
“You see, there is no answer there—nothing but an attempt at sarcasm,” Gross replied. “That’s the trouble with the French—you present an argument and they reply with a shrug of the shoulders. All they can say is that I did not write that because I am an American. … I have won a fight for the American people.”
But Gross’ triumph did not last. Learned Hand, a federal judge in New York who later became famous as a Supreme Court justice, issued his own ruling in 1920. Hand said the two plays weren’t actually all that similar—and The Merchant Prince of Cornville was a bad piece of writing. Would Rostand have imitated Gross? “Highly improbable,” Hand declared, opening the door for American theaters to bring Cyrano de Bergerac back onto the stage.
By that time, both Gross and Rostand had died. Cyrano de Bergerac has endured as a beloved romance, inspiring more than a dozen movies, including 1987’s Roxanne, starring Steve Martin. Meanwhile, The Merchant Prince of Cornville fell even deeper into obscurity. It has rarely, if ever, been performed. That doesn’t settle the question of plagiarism, but history’s verdict on the quality of the plays is clear. Victory, Cyrano.