Review: Lightning Strikes With The October Storm in Raven Theatre’s 40th Season Finale

The October Storm is the second in the Grand Boulevard Trilogy by playwright Joshua Allen. It is rare that I see echoes of my life so beautifully written and acted. Allen’s dialogue sizzles and is performed by a high-caliber cast. The play is being staged now by Raven Theatre with direction by Malkia Stampley perfectly in sync.

The play is set in 1966 when there was optimism about Chicago's thriving Black economy. Grand Boulevard is now called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and it was the center of what is now Bronzeville. Shariba Rivers gives a knockout performance as Mrs. Elkins, the owner of a two-flat and guardian of her teenage granddaughter Gloria (Jaeda LaVonne). Rivers was also a standout in Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind at Timeline Theater. Mrs. Elkins is navigating life as a working woman and as a widow. She puts her soul into making sure that Gloria has every advantage and gets into college. They live in the basement of the building to collect higher rent on the upstairs apartments. It is a situation that Gloria finds more and more restricting.

Mrs. Elkins' home has all of the trappings of a well-kept Black home. The pictures of White Jesus and her deceased husband Pop-Pop are seen as soon as anyone enters or leaves. Gloria knows she is expected to say goodbye to Jesus and Pop-Pop whenever she leaves the house.

Gloria is being courted by an eager young man named Crutch (Brandon Sapp), who adores her; he's in a constant state of yearning and insecurity. When Crutch asks Mrs. Elkins if he can come over and watch The Ike and Tina Turner Revue on American Bandstand with Gloria, he is literally sweating it. Sapp gives depth to the character in an appealing performance that tugs at the heart. Mrs. Elkins agrees as long as her upstairs tenant and friend Lucille (Felisha D. McNeal) will be parked in between Crutch and Gloria on the sofa. She also requests a pack of Pall Malls (talk about a flashback!).  

Jaeda LaVonne and Brandon Sapp. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

McNeal is the heart of the story as a sounding board for Mrs. Elkins and Gloria. She is also hilarious as the flirty woman who gets a twinkle in her eye when Korean vet Louis (Nathaniel Andrew) shows up to see the apartment upstairs. It doesn’t matter that she is wearing a robe and a hair bonnet; her posture changes and her face lights up. That was one of many comic moments that included some sketchy and hilarious Bible interpretations. McNeal is a comic gem going trick-or-treating with a pillowcase (been there) and saying that she is dressed as Beulah (a 1950s TV show featuring Louise Beaver as a loyal maid). She is also great in the somber moments when she is asked to keep a secret from Gloria.

All is well at Mrs. Elkins' until a package arrives for Gloria’s birthday. It is from the mother who abandoned her with Mrs. Elkins--the infant wearing nothing more than a urine-soaked diaper. It is also complicated by the arrival of Louis who could not stay in the South and has what was once called shellshock. On the surface, Louis is a polite and very handsome young man who calls Mrs. Elkins and Lucille ma’am like every well-raised Black boy from the South. One of the best parts of the writing is how Joshua Allen brings in the authenticity of Black life before we were “allowed” to shop where the White people did. Bronzeville was a microcosm of Chicago. In The October Storm, everyone seems to know each other’s stories from Down South. Louis’ story is known as well as his family, but it becomes more apparent why he had to leave his hometown.

Jaeda LaVonne and Felisha D. McNeal. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

There is a mutual attraction between Mrs. Elkins and Louis. It also adds to Gloria’s growing resentment that she doesn't know anything about her mother. She imagines her mother as a glamourous movie star because she abandoned her for California. Gloria also suspects that her grandmother is deliberately keeping her mother away.

There is indeed a storm brewing in the Elkins household. It is literally a rainstorm and a storm of carnality that Mrs. Elkins thought was long gone. Louis’ trauma is haunting in a superb performance from Nathaniel Andrew. LaVonne is really good at transforming Gloria from a sweet girl to a viper, which is reminiscent of Veda in Mildred Pierce (1945).

The October Storm is masterfully directed by Malkia Stampley. She has a deft touch of elegant pacing and draws wonderfully subtle performances out of the cast. The comic moments are laugh-out loud and the tense moments kept me engaged in the drama of the story.

Shariba Rivers and Nathaniel Andrew. Photo by Michael Brosilow..

The production crew on the show are to be commended. Sotirios Livaditis’ scenic design is perfect. I spent my formative years in a similar basement apartment and the feeling of being subterranean comes across realistically. The set dressings by Bren Coombs put me in the wayback machine. The icebox and the laundry hanging in the kitchen took me back as did the scrub board and zinc wash tub. Jet magazine was on the table right next to the Bible. My one quibble is that my Granny’s Jesus was knocking at the door.

Jared Gooding’s lighting design gave a sepia tone to the stage, which is perfect for that era. I must mention the superb job of Megan E. Pirtle as the wig designer. Wigs were a staple in the ‘60s and Pirtle hits the mark. She also designed wigs for other productions that I have covered such as Trouble in Mind and Relentless. The costume design by Alexia Rutherford is sharp and perfect for the era when people dressed to go downtown or to the Englewood Concourse.

All of the elements add up to a wonderful play. It is a realistic and profound play that illuminates the multifaceted Black culture in Chicago on a par with August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. I highly recommend it and I will make a point of catching The Last Pair of Earlies, which is the first in the trilogy, when it comes around again.

The October Storm is playing through June 25 at the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark in the Edgewater neighborhood. The play is 1 hour and 50 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $40 with $15 tickets for students, active military, and veterans.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.