Bottom 5 of 2018 (Or, Here’s How We Can Do Better in the New Year)

2018 was a strong year for Chicago theatre, but there is always room for improvement. As our society struggles with issues of equity and supremacy, so too does our art. Maggie and I have compiled a list of less than progressive theatre experiences we have had this year, and we share them with you in the interest of what to watch out for, and what must continually be called out and changed in 2019. In no particular order:

“Little Shop of Horrors” & “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at Drury Lane

Drury Lane Theatre has had a year of clinging to safety nets to accommodate a largely older, white subscriber base. Chicago audiences are clamoring for theaters to cast more actors of color in highly visible roles, and produce more work from authors and directors of color. But with recent productions of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Little Shop of Horrors”, Drury lane has opted to do neither. Roles in each production that are typically handed to white actors were doled out to white actors yet again as Drury Lane continued the tradition of relegating performers of color to playing largely silent household staff (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) and a Supremes-style Greek chorus (“Little Shop”). Here’s your 2019, tailor-made ice bucket challenge, Drury Lane: Cast your next traditionally white main character with an actor of color. Repeat as often as possible. -Maggie Wagner

“Tootsie” at Broadway in Chicago

“Tootsie” is going to make money and win mystifying praise, no matter what Theatre By Numbers says. But that doesn’t mean the Broadway-bound production doesn’t deserve a callout. Never has a production had less of a reason to exist, so much so that its writers and actors spent promotional interviews with the Trib and the Sun-Times doling out justifications for a 2018 take on the 1982 film comedy. The Broadway in Chicago production was dismissive of gender dynamics, negligent in analyzing power between men and women, and completely ignorant of how the production might be perceived by the trans community. Men in dresses aren’t funny, and we’d wager they’ve never been funny. David Yazbek’s score was unmemorable, and book writer Robert Horn sacrificed insight for lampshaded #MeToo references. -Sarah Bowden

“Miss Saigon” at Broadway in Chicago

Another outdated production in Broadway in Chicago’s season. This musical has a storied history of whitewashing and tragic character stereotyping. If you’re looking at the horrors of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a Vietnamese woman, perhaps it’s less than ideal to funnel the tragedy of the musical’s narrative through a white man’s experiences. The unending popularity of “Miss Saigon” could demonstrate that audiences are hungry for a wider array of stories on our stages. But when we are fed the same points of view and diminishing character actions over and over, we fail to recognize what is actively diverse, and how we can better serve those whose voices we want to uplift. -Sarah Bowden

“New Worlds: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends” at The Chicago Theatre

Bill Murray proves to an audience of beaming superfans that he has no idea what goes into curating an evening of music and selections read from a slate of his favorite literary heavyweights. Seriously, what would prompt Murray to read passages from Hemingway and Twain that feature prominent misogyny and racial slurs? Laziness? Bad shrimp? We may never know the inner workings of this self-proclaimed folk hero’s mind, but what is clear is that “New Worlds” suffers from a lack of outside perspective. It’s easy to read a loaded piece of literature when you’re a wealthy, white, beloved character actor, and there are very few pieces of literature that would ever have the power to make you feel unwelcome in a space. So, he proceeds to make us all unwelcome; he reads choice selections from Hemingway that reduce women to breast size, and the most offensively broad, imbecilic interpretations of Black characters from “Huckleberry Finn.” Murray asks us to find poignance buried somewhere in his mountain of white male gaze. The most that I, and my fellow patrons who left long before the show was over, could muster was: LOL NO. -Maggie Wagner

The 2018 Jeff Awards at Drury Lane Theatre

The Joseph Jefferson Awards are glittery, local accolades, and most Chicago theaters and performers indulge their older, white member base as they vie to be the most “Jeff Recommended”. As more artists and playhouses are questioning the value of being picked as a favorite of this stodgy institution, The Jeff Awards tried to revamp their image by recruiting younger members, members of color, and rejecting traditionally gendered award categories like ‘best actor’ & ‘best actress’ in favor of having male, female, or non-binary actors compete directly. These are all commendable steps, but change to committee demographics is markedly slow. Even removing gender from their actor categories, just resulted in more men than women or non-binary performers being honored in 2018. With change coming at a glacial pace, the Jeff Awards hardly paint a complete picture of exemplary theater in Chicago. -Maggie Wagner

Our object at Theatre By Numbers is always to promote quality theater and help these institutions and performers weed out their complacency. We want to see these companies keep working beyond snarky, embattled responses and enact real change. You only move forward if you’re willing to work, and embrace the idea that there isn’t an ‘enough’ you can target when working to end racism and sexism in art. It’s hard work, and it never stops.