CHAMPAIGN — When Kelechi Ezie took her short "The Truth About Beauty and Blogs" to the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, she never imagined who would see it there: Roger Ebert and his wife, Chaz.
"I hadn't been to Chicago since I was little; I didn't realize Roger Ebert saw a lot of films around town," said the 20-something who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. "To me, he was always this revered figure in the news. It was crazy to me that he was actually there.
"When they told me Chaz wanted to say congratulations, I did a huge inhalation of breath."
Chaz Ebert did more than congratulate Ezie.
She asked her to bring her short to Roger Ebert's Film Festival, opening Wednesday evening at the Virginia Theatre. Chaz Ebert will emcee the special event of the University of Illinois College of Media.
"It's been an absolute dream. I'm pumped," Ezie said. "I'm ecstatic. This is a huge opportunity. I'm just starting out. It's my first screenplay."
In it, Ezie plays a diva of social media who's thrown off her game after her boyfriend Marcus — the alpha to her omega and the future father of her children — changes his relationship status to single on Facebook. Her 13-minute short lampoons social media — and many other things about beauty and dating.
"I guess I was making an exaggerated version of the modern woman who's trying to do everything right and trying to be her best self who grew up with Oprah in the background," Ezie explained. "I read O magazine ever since it started (in April 2000.) I was precocious."
She also said Marcus is fictional and based on the concept that a woman can date someone she doesn't really like much at the beginning and then have her heart broken by him later.
"Women go through a lot, feeling compelled to be in a relationship and settling on one," Ezie said. "If you don't really like one but you feel compelled to have a boyfriend, it becomes a project, one of the measures of your success. When it falls off, you take it as a failure."
Ezie admitted she's improved in that regard.
"When I was younger, I wasn't allowed to date until I was 17; I was very much focused on schoolwork. As soon as I turned 17, I wanted a boyfriend. It was fun, but it's definitely not necessary to have one all the time. People really do feel that it completes them."
In her case, studying paid off. She graduated cum laude from Princeton University with a degree in history and theater. While there, she won the Walter Phelps Hall Prize in European history for her thesis on "Reading What is There: Africans in Early Modern England."
She had the idea for the thesis while reading literary critics who theorized that Shakespeare made up his black characters. She received grant money to do research in London, where she discovered the presence of Africans dating back to the 1400s. They were not slaves but instead had jobs and even engaged in interracial marriage, she said.
After Ezie graduated from Princeton, she moved to New York City — she lives in Harlem — to pursue an acting career. She began to work in plays and musicals and originated the role of Jessica in the off-Broadway premiere of "Tearing Down The Walls," written and directed by Obie Award winner Daniel Beaty.
Ezie is now studying improv and recently started writing a loosely biographical dramatic feature film script about a child at a young age losing a parent; she usually writes comedy. She's also writing a half-hour sitcom pilot based on Vanessa, the social-media diva she plays in "The Truth About Beauty and Blogs."
In case you're wondering, Kelechi (ka-lay-key) means "praise God" among the Evo of Nigeria. Ezie's father, who was from Nigeria, died eight years ago; he worked in health care. Ezie's mother is a pediatrician. Both supported their daughter's desire for an acting career.
To support herself while auditioning for jobs, Ezie works for the Playbill Theater magazine website. There, she's also doing research for a new Playbill website, geared toward high school students, about undergraduate performing arts programs.
Ezie will appear on the Ebertfest stage late Wednesday night with Raymond Lambert, John Davies, Reid Brody and Ali LeRoi. All four are bringing the documentary "Phunny Business: A Black Comedy" (2010) to the festival; it will be shown at 10:15 p.m. Wednesday after Ezie's short.
The festival will open earlier that evening at 7 with "Joe Versus the Volcano" (1990), starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Appearing on stage after that will be Stephen Goldblatt, director of photography.
"Phunny Business" tells of the careers launched by Chicago's black comedy club All Jokes Aside.
"Name the successful black comedians since 1990 who didn't begin there, and you'd be making a very short list," Ebert wrote. "The film is fascinating for its memories of big names early in their careers, but also for its inside look at Raymond C. Lambert, the businessman who ran it with precise professionalism and steered it through the high seas of Chicago finance and politics. There's an ironic lesson of some sort to be learned when the club is finally undone by its own success. And a sad old lesson when it confronts racism."