Tip of the Week

The Sutherland

Even though Charles Smith's new play is named after the former South Side music venue that provides the setting for several of its scenes in the 1950s, this is actually far more of a biographical play than an exploration of classic Chicago jazz. Smith focuses on Malachi Thompson, a real-life Chicago-born trumpet player who finds his way back to his home city after living and playing in Europe, where racial paradigms were very different (Thompson himself provides the music in Dennis Zacek's Victory Gardens production). To universalize his story, Smith emphasizes a father-son conflict and a background of race politics that inform all of the events in his central character's life. "The Sutherland" could use more work: We never get a full enough sense of this great jazz club, a European girlfriend (well played by Kelly Hazen) unaccountably drops from the play, and there's a whopping plot contrivance in the second act to explain (unbelievably) why Malachi misses his father's funeral. But this is also a powerful and heartfelt piece of writing from an important American playwright with a real talent for crafting explosive scenes of dialogue (some of the acting here is very, very good). There's also a real sense of community and purpose to a drama that undoubtedly reflects the experiences of many young black artists who grew up (like Smith and Thompson) in that particular time and place. Smith writes intelligently, creatively and emotionally: The Sutherland is already an important Chicago play -- and since opening night Smith and Zacek have been working feverishingly to fix the original problems.

"The Sutherland" runs through October 26 at Victory Gardens Theatre, 2257 North Lincoln Avenue, 773.871.3000. (Chris Jones)

The Sutherland


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