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Out of Africa
Plays at three local theaters span the African diaspora

Publication: Chicago Sun-Times
Published: September 7, 2007
Client: Congo Square Theatre

by HEDY WEISS

During the next couple of weeks, three plays representing very different aspects of the African diaspora -- that great global migration that is the product of slavery, colonialism and modern chaos -- will be produced by Chicago theaters.

August Wilson, the man who immortalized the Hill District of Pittsburgh in his cycle of 10 plays about the African-American experience, hardly needs an introduction. "Jitney," his tale of a gypsy cab business in the 1970s, the impact of urban renewal, and the tensions between a father and son, will be revived by Pegasus Players.

Kwame Kwei-Armah (born Ian Roberts) grew up in the West Indian immigrant community of London, the son of parents from Grenada. In "Elmina's Kitchen," this actor-writer, whose work has been seen on the BBC and at the National Theatre, looks at life in a multicultural ghetto of today's London, and also homes in on a father-son relationship. Congo Square Theatre's Midwest debut of the play will be directed by Derrick Saunders, who has had many great successes with Wilson's plays.

Finally, Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, is a Nigerian poet, playwright and political activist who has spent a great deal of time in Britain. His classic, "Death and The King's Horseman," which looks at the clash of African culture and British colonialism (and again deals with a father and son), is being presented by the Fehinty African Theater Ensemble (FATE). Serving as producer is Adekunle Akingboju, a Nigerian-born engineering student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who believes theater is an ideal way to explain his country to a wider audience and to help make a difference.

Here is a closer look:

'JITNEY'
Thursday-Oct. 28 at Pegasus Players, 1145 W. Wilson, (773) 878-9761

Jonathan Wilson, director: "One of August Wilson's abiding concerns was where black culture fit into American society. He loved his country but was preoccupied by where his people were in it. And he continually encouraged black folks to take better care of themselves in order to enjoy the American experience.

"August wrote the first drafts of 'Jitney' very early on -- before 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' -- and always hoped his mentors would help him improve it. Eventually, he just put it away and only took it out again many years later, after he'd had much more experience. ...

"August's plays are never easy. And this one is particularly deceptive; it seems so simple on the surface but it hits the issues with such sensitivity and control. It looks at whether it is possible for individuals to ever really find reconciliation with each other. As one young woman asks: How much can I trust a relationship with a man who steals money that was supposed to be for baby food? Wilson also takes one of his characters to task for blaming the white man for all his problems."

'ELMINA'S KITCHEN'
Thursday-Oct. 24, a Congo Square Theatre production at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green St., (312) 733-6000

Kwame Kwei-Armah, playwright: "'Elmina's Kitchen' [which debuted in 2003 at the National Theatre] is the first play in what has become a trilogy. And I've been writing it so that my kids will know what it meant to be black and British in the first part of the 21st century. ...

"The play is about a father who tries to keep his son from the lure of gangs. One of the catalysts for writing it came when I was on my way home and saw a BMW wrapped around a tree, and then learned that the two young black boys who'd been in it had been shot. Gun crime was still relatively rare in Britain even five years ago, but I think I caught the beginning of that downward spiral that has resulted in the blood of young black men consecrating the earth of our cities."

'DEATH AND THE KING'S HORSEMAN'
Monday-Sept. 16, the Fehinty African Theater Ensemble at Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont, (773) 883-1090

Adekunle Akingboju, producer: "I am 24, was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and came to the U.S. when I was 6. I've been studying engineering, but have learned a lot about theater through self-education. I met Wole Soyinka twice in Chicago -- first when he came to the Sheraton Hotel to make a speech about the Nigerian oil crisis, and then at Northwestern University, where he talked about 'Othello.' I even found out that he knows my uncle, a professor in Nigeria.

"Last year, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, I produced Soyinka's 'The Lion and the Jewel,' which is set in a Yoruban village. Now I'm doing 'Death and the King's Horseman' because it is about the influence of the West on Africa. And it suggests why Africans need to stop procrastinating about the negative Western influence and must begin to deal better with themselves."

 
 

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