Lookingglass’s new play about race in vaudeville engages interesting questions but feels a little academic.
Centered on a seemingly unlikely but engrossing pairing, Lookingglass ensemble member Kevin Douglas's new play considers a biracial duo of street performers in 1908 Chicago, that long-lost era when the Cubs were on their way to their second consecutive World Series championship and the city's vaudeville theaters were sharply segregated between black and white.
The talented Thaddeus (Travis Turner) and Slocum (Samuel Taylor) are frustrated by the rules of the game, in which the prestigious white theaters limit themselves to one "Negro" act per bill, until Slocum—the less dedicated but fortuitously Caucasian half of the act—comes up with the bright idea that they should both perform in burnt-cork blackface, pulling one over on the white bookers.
Douglas puts this risky move in parallel with Thaddeus's discovery that his gorgeous love interest, the chanteuse Isabella (enchantingly played by Monica Raymund through July 17, with Christina Nieves taking over for the remainder of the run) is actually biracial, passing as white to perform on both sides of the unwritten law.
What unspools is a largely intriguing examination of a seemingly distant past that's really only as far removed as the Cubs' last dynasty: Not as distant as we'd like to think, considering the context of the remembrance. Where Lookingglass's production falls a bit short is in establishing its world of sparkling vaudeville talent.
The original songs by composer Rick Sims are eminently forgettable, even in the opening daydream sequence in which Thaddeus imagines himself and Slocum as the toast of the town. And while Taylor and Turner pull off some impressive clown work in their duo routines, nothing quite achieves the suggestion of dazzle that says these guys should have been stars together. Thaddeus and Slocum could prompt some worthy conversations about racism and privilege, but it falls just short of must-book.
Lookingglass Theatre Company. By Kevin Douglas. Directed by J. Nicole Brooks and Krissy Vanderwarker. With Travis Turner, Samuel Taylor, Monica Raymund. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.