Written and directed by the Black Ensemble Theater‘s Jackie Taylor, “The BlackWhite Love Play (The Story of Chaz & Roger Ebert)”—so titled, Taylor told the Chicago Sun-Times, to honor their “seamless” relationship—follows the couple through their courtship, marriage, and Roger’s death in 2013. The musical, which features a seven-piece orchestra, is now playing in Chicago, and it has Chaz’s seal of approval. “Thumbs Way Up,” reads the headline of her deeply personal review.
You may want to take that assessment with a grain of salt, though. The website Chicago Critic laments the lack of attention paid to either Chaz’s career as a civil rights attorney or Roger’s reinvention, with Gene Siskel, of mainstream American film criticism, and Ebert’s former home, the Sun-Times, calls it “two hours of near hagiography.” Ouch.
It’s not terribly surprising that “The BlackWhite Love Play” would treat Roger more gently than Steve James’ remarkable and revealing “Life Itself,” or even Ebert’s memoir of the same name. Upon his death, Ebert left a bequest to the Black Ensemble Theater, and Chaz authorized the production at the outset. With 18 songs, in genres ranging from gospel to hip-hop, it’s certainly a brighter portrait than James’ often wrenching 2014 documentary, which offered an intimate picture of Ebert struggling against the vagaries of illness the only way he knew how: by viewing films, and by writing about them.
“The BlackWhite Love Play” runs through Nov. 15. No word yet on any plans to bring the show on the road.