For February, we asked the Tribune's arts critics for their best suggestions for entertainment for Black History Month. From the worlds of Chicago theater, music, dance and beyond — regardless of whether they are promoted as Black History Month events, and adding the note that many of Chicago's stages and cultural institutions boast diverse programming 12 months of the year — here are their picks.
'Seven Guitars' at Court Theatre
Black History Month should be a time for earnest reflection. But there should also be room for a celebration of African-American culture, a space for an infusion of the joy of what black history has wrought. For us all. I suppose you have to say that August Wilson is a part of history now, being as the great man has been dead for more than eight years. But to many of us in Chicago, Wilson remains a living, vibrant presence. So it will be as long as we have his plays, each an exploration of one decade of the African-American experience of the 20th century.
The blues infuse many of Wilson's plays but none more so than "Seven Guitars," a play that takes place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, like almost all of Wilson's plays. But Chicago actually has a stronger presence in "Seven Guitars" than any other Wilson drama: It functions as a town of aspiration, a place where any black man would want to be, we're told. But Chicago also is a city that has already knocked down these characters, who have retreated, wondering if they should try again. The fine director Ron OJ Parson understands that "Seven Guitars" is one long riff on doubt and uncertainty. But his vibrant production at the Court Theatre also gets the other message of "Seven Guitars." Wilson is saying that you've still got to make your music, whatever history comes your way. And at Court, so they do.
Through Feb. 16 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.; $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org
'Queenie Pie' by Chicago Opera Theater
Duke Ellington's reputation as one of the titans in the history of jazz rests primarily on such classic songs as his "Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," "Satin Doll" and others. But who recalls that Ellington also composed an opera? Ellington wrote "Queenie Pie" as a TV vehicle for Lena Horne, but the piece remained unfinished at his death in 1974. Outfitted with additional Ellington songs to complete the score, the opera's Chicago premiere by Chicago Opera Theater promises to be a major addition to the city's celebration of Black History Month.
"Queenie Pie" was inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker, the first female African-American self-made millionaire, who made her fortune developing and selling women's hair and beauty products. The Chicago Opera Theater's production will "contemporize" and also make the opera "timeless," according to director-choreographer Ken Roht, who created his staging for this show and the Long Beach Opera, which premiered it earlier this week in Southern California. "Queenie Pie" is "a neglected gem, fascinating musically, dramatically and historically," says Andreas Mitisek, who directs both opera companies.
Feb. 15 to March 5 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive; $35-$125 at 312-704-8414 or chicagooperatheater.org
Wadada Leo Smith, Douglas Ewart and Mike Reed at Constellation
Three important figures in 21st-century jazz — Wadada Leo Smith, Douglas Ewart and Mike Reed — will converge on the city's most prominent nexus for experimental music, Constellation. No, the event is not billed as a celebration of Black History Month. But the legacy of African-American culture in general, and its musical rituals in particular, radiates through their work.
Last year, composer-trumpeter-bandleader Smith was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his epic work "Ten Freedom Summers." The sprawling opus contemplates critical moments in the struggle for civil rights, the titles of its movements telling the story: "Dred Scott: 1857," "Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless," "The Freedom Riders Ride" and "Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days."
Reedist Ewart has been a key figure in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians for decades — his work as soloist and in uncounted ensembles extending the definitions of jazz, improvisation and new music. Most recently, he appeared on one of the best recordings of 2013, "Voice Prints," a free-ranging experiment in sound and spontaneity with Yusef Lateef, Roscoe Mitchell and Adam Rudolph.
Drummer Reed has been a dynamic figure in Chicago jazz for the several years. It was Reed who last year acquired the old Viaduct Theater space on North Western Avenue and transformed it into Constellation. To hear him collaborating with Smith and Ewart in this already indispensable venue is to hear — and to celebrate — the resonances of black musical culture.
9:30 p.m. Feb. 28 and March 1 at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $15; constellation-chicago.com.
'The Left Front: Radical Art in the Red Decade, 1929-1940' at Block Museum of Art
"The Left Front" at Northwestern's Block Museum of Art isn't exclusively about black history, even as it does address radical art and visual culture aimed at equality and specifically racial equality in the U.S. and Chicago during the Depression era. The show contains several books by Richard Wright in vitrines, for example, and also has several large quotes from Wright on its walls, including one from the Wright poem "Black Hands." It is effective how the show incorporates African-American history into American history — not separating it out but presenting black history as integral to the country's history.
Through June 22 at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston; 847-491-4000 and blockmuseum.northwestern.edu
— Claudine Ise
Kyle Abraham's 'The Radio Show' on the MCA Stage
In September, when choreographer Kyle Abraham received a MacArthur "genius" grant, he told The New York Times that three years earlier he'd been on food stamps — and that he was still wondering how he'd ever pay off his student loans. Now, the sky's the limit.
This month, Abraham.In.Motion makes its Chicago debut with his first evening-length work and big hit, "The Radio Show" (2010). Its theme is loss — specifically, two lost voices in Abraham's life. His father had Alzheimer's-related aphasia, and the historic urban-format station WAMO in his hometown of Pittsburgh had closed its doors in 2009. Recorded WAMO snippets in the piece's score suggest Abraham's subject: what it means to be black, queer and American.
So, yes, "The Radio Show" is elegiac and serious, but it also promises great entertainment. Reportedly funny at times, it features a recorded mix of experimental sound art with classic soul, hip-hop, gospel and R&B tunes. Video clips reveal superlative dancing in movement smooth as soul singing and slashing as a roundhouse kick; like the score, Abraham's choreography is a blend, combining the street dance of his youth with the contemporary technique he acquired later, in part while performing with Bill T. Jones.
7:30 p.m. Feb. 20-22 and 3 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.; $28 at 312-397-4010 or mcachicago.org
— Laura Molzahn
Jacqueline Jones, author of 'A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama's America'
Historian Jacqueline Jones' smart, provocative new book arrived a little late in the holiday season to get the notice it deserved. So here's your chance to catch up on a persuasive, deeply researched, readable argument, from a MacArthur "genius" and history professor at the University of Texas, that a person's race is mostly a social fiction, an agreed-upon contrivance, a fundamental lie established by powerful people to keep themselves flush with affordable labor. Which sounds more academic than Jones' six compelling profiles, so intricately researched as to feel novelistic: Among her portraits is an enslaved African killed for refusing to work the fields, a 19th-century New England businesswoman deep in land disputes and a Booker T. Washington protege who founds a vocational college in the rural South. But my favorite was the story of the Civil War veteran who, though appearing white, is denied the chance to hold public office when a local judge arbitrarily decides the Union vet is black, mainly because other community leaders say he is black. Though she never quite acknowledges how a biological myth becomes real cultural identity, Jones gives a lot to chew on. Chances are, you've never read a book about race that puts "race" within quotation marks so frequently.
1 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted St.; chipublib.org