Black Ensemble impresario Jackie Taylor sets the romance of late film critic Roger Ebert and his wife, Chaz, to a pop soundtrack.
Despite its title, the latest piece onstage at Black Ensemble Theater touches only momentarily on the acceptance of interracial relationships beyond its core couple. Roger Ebert (Kevin Pollack), the longtime film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times and TV’s At the Movies, and his wife, Chaz (Rashada Dawan), get one passage to address a handful of resistant attitudes they encountered in the early ’90s; the scene is capped off by one of writer-director Jackie Taylor’s original musical numbers, “No Matter What Race.”
Beyond that moment, The Black White Love Play is really just a relationship-ography in the Black Ensemble style, meaning Roger and Chaz address the audience directly throughout, relating the story of their coupledom from a murky viewpoint that’s both past and present tense.
They’re supported by an eight-actor “Greek chorus” who provide commentary, echo dialogue and perform backup-vocalist choreographed moves to pop numbers like the Bee Gees’ “Too Much Heaven,” the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” and the Kris Kristofferson–penned “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Dawan powers through an arrangement of the latter that recalls Gladys Knight’s version of the song, positioned in the show as a prayer on the night of Roger’s death.
But while Dawan and Pollack provide credible impressions of their subjects, Taylor’s script keeps them feeling more like presenters than characters, with the musical track list terrifically performed but uneasily grafted to the story. You can imagine Roger giving it an appreciative but clear-eyed thumbs half-up.
Black Ensemble Theater. Written and directed by Jackie Taylor. With Rashada Dawan, Kevin Pollack. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.