UI alums' fledgling Chicago theatre company taking off
URBANA — University of Illinois Theatre alumni Julian Parker, Tyrone Phillips and Mercedes White certainly knew there were plenty of theater companies in Chicago.
But after they and three other graduates of the UI's bachelor's of fine arts degree program moved to Chicago, they went ahead anyway and founded the Definition Theatre Company.
And like most troupes without a home of their own, when it comes to rehearsals, "We rent a space. We find a space. We use a space. We borrow a space," said Phillips, the group's artistic director.
Currently, though, he, Parker and White have a rather nice space in which to rehearse — Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
The trio has returned to its alma mater to partner with Illinois Theatre, the producing arm of the UI Department of Theatre, to present "The Brothers Size," opening tonight at Krannert's Studio Theatre, as well as a festival of short plays, most written by UI theater alumni.
Phillips, Parker and White are familiar with "The Brothers Size." They acted in the three-character play in a workshop production in April 2012 at the UI's Armory Free Theatre.
Later, as the Definition Theatre Company's inaugural production in June 2012 in Chicago, they portrayed the three characters again.
UI theater Professor Kathleen Conlin directed the two earlier productions and is helming "Brothers Size" a third time for Illinois Theatre.
Conlin, who is retiring from the university in a few days, said the production is deepening since they first started working on it.
"As we're all maturing — all of us — I think we're coming up with a new perspective, especially as to the inter-relationships within the family," she said during a break in rehearsals last week.
"The play hits every family deeply — that's what's really at the core," she said.
Illinois Theatre describes "The Brothers Size" as "a hot-blooded, music-filled drama" that tells of two Louisiana brothers — Ogun (Phillips) and Oshoosi Size (Parker) — and Oshoosi's former jailmate Elegba (White).
"Oshoosi enters his post-prison life with promises of a new type of freedom. Poetic language, Nigerian mythology and stylized movement heighten the environment as the complexities of fraternal love, the impact of poverty and the true cost of redemption come to light."
The two-act, 90-minute play (to be presented without intermission, on a spare set) was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, a 33-year-old MacArthur "genius" and a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble in Chicago.
"The Brothers Size" is part of McCraney's "The Brother/Sister Plays" trilogy, a series that has been presented at theaters in New York, Chicago, London and other cities and has led some critics to call him one of the best playwrights of his generation.
McCraney is expected to attend a performance of "Brothers Size" here. The Definition Theatre members in the play here said they and other members of their theater company have a good relationship with the playwright.
And they had a great turnout when they did the 2012 month-long run of "The Brothers Size" in Chicago.
"People were coming in from the street, encouraged by other people who had seen it at Steppenwolf, and they enjoyed our production," Phillips said. "It ran for a month. Word 'don't go' didn't go around. People were coming two or three times. It was the backbone of our company."
The backbone because Definition Theatre Company aims to have the classical and contemporary plays it presents reflect the "ever-changing" face of America.
"We're close to actors and minorities you don't see very often on stage," Phillips said. "This play captures all of that. The language is rich, and so are the poetry and raw emotions we bring to it. We're trying to bring a younger generation to theater."
However, a couple of African-American women in their 60s showed up at the play in Chicago. And Definition appreciates that.
And though some theater-goers were shocked to see White playing a male role, they came to embrace the idea.
"She's killin' it," Phillips said. "For the most part, she was accepted with open arms and people loved it."
The Definition Theatre Company was founded in part due to crowd-funding; it's also receiving help with marketing and other things from High Concept Labs, an arts service organization in Chicago.
But the experience of being a new theater company on its own is scary, said Parker, the group's executive editor.
"Everybody in Chicago has a theater company," he said. "So people getting excited about what we wanted to do let us know how much they cared about what we were doing. It let us know that we're doing the things we should be doing."
The other three company founders are Aurora Adachi-Winter, Kelson Michael McAuliffe and Jessica Dean Turner.
If you go
What: Illinois Theatre and the Definition Theatre Company of Chicago will present "The Brothers Size," part of a trilogy of plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney
When: 7:30 p.m. today through Sunday and June 4-7.
Where: Studio Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U.
Tickets: $20 for adults and $10 for University of Illinois students and youths.
Information: 333-6280 and krannertcenter.com
The Illinois Theatre summer programming that includes "The Brothers Size" will feature The New Short Play Festival, featuring pieces by UI alumni as well as one by Tarell Alvin McCraney, author of "The Brothers Size." The play titles:
— "Evening News" by Aaron Carter
— "Seward, Kansas" by Matthew-Lee Erlbach
— "Pigeons, Sharks, and Vixens" by Matthew-Lee Erlbach
— "Blackie's Funeral" by Paco Jose Madden
— "Stepping Out" by Damir Konjicija and Leah Williams
— "A Taurian Tale ..." by Tarell Alvin McCraney
— "Just Suppose" by Tucker Rafferty
— "The Space Behind Your Heart" by Steven Simoncic
The plays will be presented at 7:30 p.m. June 11-14 and 10 p.m. June 13 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for UI students and youths.