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Chicago Theaters Go Virtual During the Virus; Goodman Streams School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play

Adia Alli (Gifty), Katherine Lee Bourné (Ama), Ashley Crowe (Nana), Ciera Dawn (Paulina Sarpong) and Tiffany Renee Johnson (Mercy) in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. Photo by Liz Lauren.

In these “AC,” After COVID, times, Chicago theaters are offering online content to fill the gap of canceled shows and in-person instruction (as well as the yawning expanse of endless days). Chicago Dramatists is offering playwriting classes on Zoom, other venues are streaming greatest hits from the past and online fundraisers during this normally busy benefit season. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presented an extended online toast for Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23. The program included local and international actors, like Larry Yando and the Q Brothers Collective, its leadership (along with Steppenwolf) on a medical mask-making project, an overview of the education departments’ teacher curriculum, and a request for donations. (See more digital theater offerings below.)

The League of Chicago Theatres is asking artists to petition their representatives for federal coronavirus assistance for the arts, among other grassroots, artist-focused projects. Steppenwolf is replacing its annual spring gala with Pants Optional: A Steppenwolf Soiree on May 9 at 6:30pm CT, free and open to all, featuring notable ensemble members Joan Allen, John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf.

Goodman Theatre is just completing a run of its virtual version of the off-Broadway hit, Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, directed by Lili-Anne Brown. The 90-minute performance was recorded during previews several days before the scheduled opening night, and the theater plans to resume performances when it’s safe. This online recording was available free for current ticket holders via a password-protected online portal. Those without tickets streamed the performance for pay-what-you-can donations, starting at $15. The last streaming performance is tonight but tickets are no longer available.

In the energetic take on Tina Fey’s screenplay concept, Ghanaian boarding school seniors congregate in the cafeteria to jockey for social status, to worry about their weight and their positions in the show choir, and to prepare for their big dance as well as the Miss Ghana pageant. It’s 1986, and a love of Bobby “Mr. Telephone Man” Brown loosely unites these uncertain high schoolers: Ama (Katherine Lee Bourné), Nana (Ashley Crowe), Gifty (Adia Alli) and Mercy (Tiffany Renee Johnson) support and undermine each other with alarming alacrity.

They gather around beautiful yet cruel queen bee Paulina (Ciera Dawn), who rules by manipulation, intimidation and blackmail. Light-skinned American transfer student Ericka (Kyrie Courter) shows up a week into the term. Her African dad runs the big cocoa factory, and her knowledge of US pop culture and her suitcase full of African hair products makes her a threat to the pecking order.

Tania Richard (Headmistress Francis) and Lanise Antoine Shelley (Eloise Amponsah). Photo by Liz Lauren.

No-nonsense headmistress Francis (Tania Richard), resplendent in Kente cloth (costumes by Samantha C. Jones), has her own status challenged when former classmate Eloise (Lanise Antoine Shelley), 1966’s Miss Ghana, shows up to hand-pick her successor.

The three-camera video shoot is crisp and carefully captures the ebullient ensemble and intense exploration of beauty in women of color, as Chicago’s producers continue to be creative in the move from IRL to URLs.

Other virtual theater events include Porchlight Music Theatre’s Sondheim at 90 roundtable series, hosted as a Facebook Live event by artistic director Michael Weber. The next two roundtables are at 7pm on Saturday, May 2 and May 9. The free video series celebrates the legendary career of Stephen Sondheim with special guests from Chicago, Broadway and beyond. Each episode focuses on a single Sondheim musical: on May 2, Sunday in the Park With George, and on May 9, Follies. More info and viewing link here. Future episodes of the series will be announced, featuring other Sondheim works.

Victory Gardens Theater will stream its 2017 production of Fun Home, inspired by Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, with music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and direction by Gary Griffin. The 12-performance run is scheduled for May 12-24.  Digital admission tickets will provide access to a Vimeo channel on which you can stream the production. Each digital performance will admit 259 patrons, the same number of seats in the Victory Gardens house. Tickets, priced at $20, are available online at www.victorygardens.org.

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