Behold Terry Guest, the Chicago-based writer of a remarkable new play and, yet more impressively, its star.
“The Magnolia Ballet” bills itself as a ghost story, and it’s certainly an immersive, gothic tale of the Old South, a place where, for a young gay Black man, the walls are howling and wailing with the specters of the past. The contemporary humans certainly are trying to make change, to find their youthful way, to stake their claim on the landscape, to eschew the multigenerational history of racial injustice, but the sprits that surround them have a different idea.
Next week at the Tony Awards, attention will likely land on the Michael R. Jackson musical “A Strange Loop,” a very personal, clearly autobiographical piece that probes the psyche of a single Black man in New York City. “Magnolia Ballet,” which was first seen in a different production at Plowshares Theater and the Williamston Theater in Michigan and is getting its debut Chicago production from About Face Theater at the Den Theatre, is not a musical. But thematically, it is similar and just as poetically resonant and ambitious. Both pieces explore the sexual desires of a gay Black men and as such, they expand intersectionality into the sexual subconscious, arguing in essence that white supremacy has infiltrated even there. This is very much a movement in the American theater, at present: Jeremy O. Harris’ Broadway drama “Slave Play” and his drama “Daddy” are interested in many of these ideas, too
As a person of a certain age, reluctant to give up entirely on American exceptionalism and trapped inexorably in my own identity, as we all are, I have to confess that provokes in me a certain melancholy. Love whom you wish, I find myself wanting to shout from my seat. Defeat history. Live your best life. Don’t listen to its ghosts. I’ve had that internal response several times this year. I’d argue it is born more of hope than misunderstanding, but judge as you wish.
But that’s not what Guest wants to do here. Like many of his peers, he is presently compelled by the need to point out the destructive powers of those ghosts, a stand-in for the insidious persistence of American racism, with intersectional manifestation.
He makes his observations here quite beautifully and, of course, he does so within a dramatic palette of classical origins: the difficulty of one generation escaping the sins of their forefathers. I happened to turn on “Ozark” when I got home from “The Magnolia Ballet,” and there was the plot of escaping generational destiny, albeit with a more optimistic hue.
The description “immersive theater” is a cliché and a claim often unfulfilled. But director Mikael Burke’s production most certainly envelops, which is no small feat in a rectangular ground-floor studio on Milwaukee Avenue, without a large production budget. The stylish show is choreographed, as the title would demand, but without pretension. And even though the action takes place over 400 years, it snaps from past to present with remarkable ease. It’s superbly cast: Guest plays a character named Ezekiel Mitchell, embroiled with a Danny Mitchell (Ben Sulzberger), a Mitchell from the white side of the Mitchell family, the shared name merely a tease. The two young men not only have to navigate their own stuff, but the sins of their difficult fathers, played, richly, by Wardell Julius Clark, even as an Apparition (Sheldon D. Brown) is there as a reminder of the inevitability of history , of what August Wilson called the City of Bones, manifest here, if you get my meaning, like kudzu on the bows of creeping magnolia desire.
If you follow new American works, try and see this show before it exits The Den, although I suspect (and hope) a larger theater will restage this production, perhaps as soon as this summer. I’d argue the impassioned Sulzberger needs to dial things back, just a notch, and the final five minutes needs some more thought. About 90% of this show is crystalline in imagery, honesty and idea; the less specific 10% needs more attention.
Still. Terry Guest of Chicago, indeed. A gifted writer, clearly, to watch and experience.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “The Magnolia Ballet” (3.5 stars)
When: Through June 11
Where: About Face at the Den Theater, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Tickets: $5-$35 at 773-697-3830 or aboutfacetheatre.com