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Memorial Day is an opportunity to remember those individuals who have fought and died for the freedoms we so often as a nation take for granted. It is also a time to honor their loved ones who know all too well the sadness that loss on such a great emotional scale brings.

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RISHI SHARMA: Preserving World War II Combat Stories, One Veteran at a Time

Rishi Sharma has logged a lot of hours on the road in recent years, connecting, meeting and filming interviews with combat veterans who served in World War II. To date, he has amassed a comprehensive archive of over 850 interviews – easily over 4,500 total hours and counting — all part of his ambitious plan to honor America’s World War II heroes and preserve their stories for generations to come.

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PLAYING IN 'THE YARD' - Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Few things are more rewarding than spending time with students who are discovering something for the first time. On a brisk day in March, the topic was Shakespeare: a crisp, shortened version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, in fact, with formidable Chicago talent presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the glorious new versatile performance space known as 'The Yard.' 

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The genesis of the idea for Critical Conversations, the spirited new Spertus Institute series debuting March 18th, was framed by another series of critical conversations between President & CEO Dr. Hal M. Lewis and former trustee, the late Eric Joss. They envisioned a series that would bring together strongly divergent perspectives on hot-button issues of the day under the Spertus philosophy that, above all, the conversations strive not to change opinions, but to enhance understanding of individual viewpoints with civility and respect for one another.

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IMERMAN ANGELS - One-on-One with Benjamin Bornstein

As he faced his own cancer treatment in 2003, Jonny Imerman decided that no one should fight cancer alone. Three years later, Imerman Angels was born. Whether you are on or have completed a cancer journey, or have a loved one fighting the disease, our conversation with Imerman CEO & Executive Director Benjamin Bornstein, a three-time cancer survivor, just might be a game changer.

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A centuries old debate leads us to wonder if we are a product of the art we create or is art, in this case performance art, a true reflection of the world around us. After a closer look at a handful of recent musical theater offerings this season, the answer is a resounding yes ... and yes. Some reflection on these fine, insightful works is necessary. There is no doubt that if you saw all these productions, you too will be thinking a bit more earnestly about the immigrant experience and race relations in 20th century America and how it might apply to our lives today. Each producing organization deserves a healthy dose of respect for taking the artistic – and potentially commercial – risks to tell these important stories.

It comes as no surprise that it is all happening in and around Chicago. Our arts community has a reputation for risk and innovation. So, the conversation turns this week to the contributions of five musical theatre productions that have confronted racial bias, anti-Semitism and social injustice as a reflection of our society.  

The Scottsboro Boys

Earlier this year, we spoke to James Earl Jones II who portrayed Hayward Patterson in Porchlight Music Theatre’s superb production of Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys. This was the last production by director Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., a young and gifted theatre artist who passed on May 21, 2017 at 34 years old. Documented in extensive news reports of the day and many books, including an autobiography by Patterson, the story revolves around the fate of nine African American teenagers accused, tried and convicted of a crime they did not commit. The musical adaptation is framed in the style of a minstrel show by an all-black cast. The most poignant moments of this production were amplified because of the musical structure. The overall message of injustice is delivered by the silent and determined presence of Rosa Parks foreshadowing the social changes and civil rights movement that follow.

We have a deeper understanding of this story today because the central character, Haywood Patterson sentenced to life in prison and unwavering in his innocence, taught himself to read and then with the help of journalist Earl Conrad wrote Scottsboro Boy, published in 1950. As Jones tells us in our conversation, the minstrel show context is appropriate for the all-black cast for which the piece was written. With the ability to reflect months later, the Porchlight production of The Scottsboro Boys is one of the most powerful seen of late – a testament to the inspired talent and creativity of the cast and, especially, Roberson, whose bright and inspirational message casts a beacon of strength and perseverance.


The brilliantly conceived production of Parade currently playing through July 2nd at Writers Theatre in Glencoe is the story of Leo Max Frank, a factory superintendent who was convicted in 1913 of the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee. It is a rush-to-judgment story that ended in what is largely considered today a wrongful conviction. The love story/murder mystery, as seen through the political ambitions and deception of the principal characters, is told this time from the formal sitting and court rooms of Atlanta. After years of appeals and shifting public opinion, key witnesses recant their testimony, exposing the overwhelming prejudice of the day. This parade, however, then takes a very severe and tragic turn.

It is not hard to imagine all this happening because it did. Hal Prince produced the Broadway production that debuted in 1998 and received nine Tony Award nominations, winning Best Score (Jason Robert Brown) and Best Book (Alfred Urhy) and 13 Drama Desk nominations, winning six. A revival in 2009 also received seven Tony nominations. Urhy’s book, based on news reports and personal reflections, is the third part of his “Atlanta Trilogy” that includes Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Parade is a particularly emotional heart-wrenching story of prejudice. And while the topic may not be at the top of your list for entertainment, the Writers Theater production should be. This is a musical that makes you think, feel and react to what is happening around us every day. It also highlights the importance of power, influence, factual reporting and the court of public opinion.           

Jesus Christ Superstar

The critically acclaimed Jesus Christ Superstar, which recently finished its run at Paramount Theater, was bold and inspiring. This dynamic production took on new meaning with an all-black cast providing a highly-charged version of the driving musical score, framed in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, portrayed by Evan Tyrone Martin. In our conversation, Martin talked about his own spiritual roots and how that foundation influenced his interpretation of the work. Regardless of your religious affiliation, this production had something significant to offer. A powerfully performed, moving and unsettling depiction of a very familiar story.

Jesus Christ Superstar was a turning point in 20th century musical theater, coming at a time in the early 70’s when Hair and Godspell had already spoken to a new generation of audiences. First appearing as a musical concert album, a 1971 Broadway debut and run followed. Audiences were apprehensive about the treatment of this story in a staged musical version. It was only after the phenomenal world-wide success of the film version in 1973 that the iconic nature of Superstar was achieved.

The themes of persecution, betrayal, redemption and unconditional love were at the center of the superb Paramount production, a bold reimaging of a timeless story performed by an extremely talented company.

My Brother’s Keeper- The Story of the Nicholas Brothers

Jackie Taylor’s Black Ensemble Theater, the mission of which is to stamp out racism, mounted an exceptional original work about the Nicholas Brothers entitled My Brother’s Keeper – The Story of the Nicholas Brothers. In our conversation with writer, choreographer and star Rueben D. Ecoles (Harald Nicholas) and co-star Rashawn Thompson (Fayard Nicholas), early in the rehearsal process, we explored the challenges of recreating one of the most celebrated dance teams of the 20th century. Along the way, we began to understand the personal obstacles they faced in a career that spanned over five decades.

In production, the Ecoles/Thompson teamwork proved to be formidable and this was an inspiring piece of musical theater that we hope will find a life elsewhere. The Nicholas story is a natural for a larger musical theatre treatment, a true-to-life historical story including prominent characters of the day like Cab Calloway, Dorothy Dandridge and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Overcoming adversity and prejudice are key to the Nicholas Brothers story.  (Note: Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker is currently playing at Black Ensemble Theater.) 


Griffin Theatre’s brilliant production of Ragtime, brings together all aspects of the American immigrant experience at the turn of the 20th century in a rich, diverse musical journey. Directed by Scott Weinstein, this larger-than-life production is raw, compelling, fresh, edgy and innovatively staged in the very intimate confines of the Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage and is now playing through July 16th.

Based on a work of historical fiction by E. L. Doctorow published in 1975, Ragtime was adapted as a film in 1981 and debuted on Broadway in 1998 where it received 13 Tony nominations, winning four, but losing Best Musical to Disney’s The Lion King. A decade later, the revival on Broadway opened to critical acclaim in November 2009, but closed in early January 2010.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times, but this Ragtime seems more in step and has much more to say at this moment than perhaps at any other. This is the story of three families in the tapestry of our evolving cultural heritage. Mixed with real life characters like J. P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini, the fictional characters of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Sarah, their baby and a New Rochelle family remind us that our freedom was born from the resistance to racial prejudice and violence. The American dream is embodied in the poignant story of the Jewish immigrant Tetah and his young daughter whose vigilance and spirit is a central theme.

The challenges of these works speak directly to our ability to accept art that places us in uncomfortable territory, moves us, exposes our own bias and even threatens the essence of our perception of the American dream and spirit. In other words, in order to understand more about our interrelationships, we need look no further than our own musical theater community who is encouraging the conversation, and enlisting hundreds of talented, committed artists who view their responsibility to present meaningful and important work to expand our understanding of the world.

There are many more musical (and non-musical) works that could have been included in our conversation. Endorse the fine work of artists, actors and organizations who encourage us to explore issues outside of our comfort zone and, by doing so, help us to understand not only how far we have come, but also how far we have yet to go.  


Parade -- Writers Theatre

Ragtime – Den Theatre

Pearl – Black Ensemble Theatre

Porchlight Music Theatre moving to Ruth Page Fall 2017 | Billy Elliot 

Paramount Theatre



Each year, Memorial Day is an opportunity to remember those individuals who have fought and died for the freedoms we so often as a nation take for granted. It is also a time to honor their loved ones who know all too well the sadness that loss on such a great emotional scale brings.

Every day is a day of memorial for these families. To say that we will never forget their sacrifice is important. Over the course of the next several days, we will see and hear many tributes to our fallen and to the Gold Star Family members who carry the weight of their sacrifice and loss. It is important to show our respect and to honor them. 

That is why once again this year, on Saturday, May 27, 2017, the City of Chicago will host the Memorial Day Wreath Laying Ceremony and Parade along State Street. This event is one of the largest of its kind in the nation, a testament to the commitment of the City of Chicago to honor the generations of families and friends from all wars, who have lost a loved one in military actions in the name of freedom.

The ceremony and parade are coordinated by a City of Chicago committee with 20 staff and volunteers who work in the months leading up to the parade to plan the event. Here you will find representatives from all branches of the military, the CPS JROTC, the Chicago Loop Alliance, USO and many others joining with the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to make it happen.

You will also find James Frazier here. Jim’s son Jake was killed in Afghanistan on March 29, 2003. Today, his family is among over 270 other Gold Star Families in Illinois who have lost loved ones in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat actions. Jim has brought a strength of purpose to the table in his position as the Survivor Outreach Services Coordinator and continues to support the Gold Star Families of Illinois.

The Memorial Day Wreath Laying Ceremony begins at 11:00 a.m. at Daley Plaza. It is a moving and poignant program dedicated to the memory of those members of our armed forces who did not come home.

The Chicago Memorial Day Parade is like no other. In another time, newspapers would publish advance pull-out sections with the parade route, photographs and a tribute to the fallen. Until only a few years ago, the parade itself was broadcast, first live, and then a shorter version on a tape-delayed basis the next day. Budgets being what they are, this is no longer possible. You will still see early morning features about the event on local television and broadcast news pool reports covering the ceremony.

Public awareness, of course, is not the point. The fact is less than one-half of one percent of the population today has a family member in active military service. Based on a 2011 Pew poll, 4 out of 5 aged 50 to 70 have a relative – perhaps even a direct relative – who has served in uniform. The numbers drop to 2 out of 5 for those aged 20 to 30. Although current statistics are slim, the younger generation may actually know someone who has or is currently serving. By and large, however, it seems that if the concept of military service is not part of your culture, a meaningful understanding probably does not exist in your daily consciousness.

So what can we be doing to show our support. Events like the Chicago Memorial Day Wreath Laying Ceremony and Parade bring together over 10,000 participants from well over 100 organizations. Since there may be no other way that you could know, for example, there are over 6,000 Chicago JROTC cadets -- young men and women -- marching from programs throughout Chicagoland. Here are a few highlights:

Lincoln Park High School Army JROTC will be marching with a 76 member unit, a Color Guard and a 10 member Drum & Bugle Corps. Known as the “Lion’s Battalion” the unit is one of the original JROTC programs established in the city of Chicago in 1916 and today, is a premier International Baccalaureate School with Wall to Wall IB programs.

The Lane Tech College Prep JROTC was established in 1930. The school has over 250 alumni who sacrificed their lives in our nations wars, and they have dedicated a Memorial Garden at Lane Tech in honor of those graduates. Never forget.

The Carl Schurz JROTC “Bulldog Battalion” with 280 cadets is one of the original Chicago JROTC programs, established in 1919. The “Bulldogs” participated in more than 100 school and community events and competitions this year including multiple veterans support events. Service over self.

Edwin G. Foreman College and Career Academy Army JROTC will be marching with 175 of the 415 cadets in their program led by a Color Guard and a 10 Member Drum & Bugle Corps. In case you did not know, Edwin G. Foreman is an outstanding Chicago banker and civic leader. The school first opened in October 1928, as a Junior High School and became a senior high school, graduating the first senior class in 1937. JROTC has been a fixture at Foreman since 1934.

There are dozens of other JROTC units represented in this year’s parade. They are marching alongside veteran’s groups, service organizations, military-themed floats, bands, mounted color guards and one of the largest contingents of antique military vehicles you will ever see. The parade will stop mid-way through for a swearing-in ceremony for the next generation of servicemen and servicewomen.

A personal favorite is the Triple Nickle. The esteemed veterans of this storied battalion known as "The Smokejumpers" will not be marching, but riding in a trolley, a ride they earned a long time ago.

If you are an early riser, you will see a few televised morning features about the ceremony and parade on local television. Jim Frazier will be among those individuals who will be the spokesman telling you about it. He will also tell you when you ask what you can do when you meet a Gold Star Family member, and that all you really ever need to do is ask about who their son or daughter was, what they liked to do and what they wanted to be.

Jim will also tell you that it would be a great time to stop, take a moment and listen to their story. It just might change the way you look at everything.

I can assure you that, in that moment, you will feel their resolve and recognize their unlimited strength of will.

And, then, you will understand the true meaning of Memorial Day.

Ed Tracy
May 23, 2017



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