The first preview of Charles Smith's Denmark inaugurates the refurbished historic Biograph Theater — the place where Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger was shot 70 years ago. VGT spent $11.3 million to turn the old movie house into a live theatre.
Smith's drama is inspired by the controversial life of freed slave Denmark Vesey. Artistic director Dennis Zacek will direct the first production in Victory Gardens' new 299-seat theatre.
The cast includes Velma Austin, Anthony Fleming III, Kenn E. Head, Raoul Johnson, Gregory Lush, A.C. Smith and Joe Van Slyke.
"Designers taking advantage of the Biograph's new wing space, traps and added stage height" include Mary Griswold (set), Judith Lundberg (costumes), Robert Shook (lights) and Andre Pluess (sound). Tina Jach is production stage manager.
"Denmark requires a cast of seven, the technical capacity to portray multiple locations, and scenic elements that inspire audiences to travel seamlessly, for example, from a church setting to a jail cell," Dennis Zacek said in production notes. "We are thrilled that, finally, Charles is able to work at his home theatre, and be granted the autonomy to tell a complex and thought-provoking story, resulting in a more potent message to the community." According to Victory Gardens, the play asks, "What is our commitment to fulfill our personal hopes and dreams, versus our obligation to foster a greater public good, when the need for that greater public good is dire?"
"With his distinctive flair, Smith explores these questions in Denmark, a searing dramatization of the true story of freed slave Denmark Vesey," according to production notes. "His freedom paid for by a lottery ticket, Vesey went on to become a sought-after carpenter in Charleston, South Carolina. However, Vesey used his earnings not to purchase freedom for the woman he loved, but to build a church for Charleston's slave community, and in 1882, plan an uprising intended to liberate all of Charleston's African slaves."
Playwright Charles Smith was born and raised on Chicago's south side. He is a founding member of the Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble, and head of the Professional Playwriting Program at Ohio University. His work explores perceptions of race and politics from an African-American point-of-view, spanning from investigations of historic icons such as Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, and Alexandre Dumas. His plays Free Man of Color (winner, 2004 Jeff Award for Best New Work), Knock Me a Kiss, The Sutherland, Freefall, Jelly Belly, Cane and Takunda all premiered at Victory Gardens.
Performances continue to Nov. 12 at the new Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, a half block north of Fullerton in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.
For more information, visit www.victorygardens.org.