Collective Theatre makes debut
Four of the six founding members of The Collective Theatre are Nelsan Ellis (from left), Jasond Jones, Metra Gilliard and Veronda Carey. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
Sept. 22-Oct. 21
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Updated: September 22, 2012 11:06AM
Sometimes you can go home again, and something wonderful happens.
That’s one way to describe the journey of six Thornridge High School alumni who’ve returned to Chicago to found The Collective Theatre. The new African-American theater company will raise the curtain on its debut production, “HooDoo Love,” beginning Sept. 22 at the Athenaeum Theatre.
“We want to bring great theater to Chicago from a variety of sources and genres — everything from Shakespeare and Chekhov to August Wilson and theater of the avant garde,” said Nelsan Ellis, one of the six co-founders, who currently stars as Lafayette on the hit HBO series “True Blood.” “For us, our old stomping ground is Chicago. We were reared here, we went to school here, many of us discovered our love of acting and writing here in Chicago, so this is where we wanted to do this.”
The “we” Ellis refers to are his longtime friends (all graduated Thornridge in south suburban Dolton) — veteran Broadway and Chicago actor Francois Battiste, actress and teacher Veronda G. Carey, actor and university theater instructor Le’Mil Eiland, marketing specialist Metra Gilliard and metallurgic engineer Jasond Jones.
“HooDoo Love,” written by American playwright Katori Hall, is directed by Ellis. It is set in a 1930s juke joint and tells the story of a young black woman (Toulou, played by Lynn Wactor) who escapes the Mississippi cotton fields and heads to Memphis to pursue her dream of singing the blues. She falls hard and fast for a traveling blues singer named “Ace of Spades” (played by LaRoyce Hawkins) who likes his rambling life on the road. The Collective six decided this was the perfect inaugural work.
“‘HooDoo’ is terribly complicated and it’s a challenge,” Ellis said. “Why do anything in life if it doesn’t challenge you and push and pull you?”
“Katori is a good friend of ours,” Battiste said, “but more than that, the play was the perfect jump-off point for us because her work is incredibly rich, her writing has incredible depth and it is a bold statement. By choosing her work it was almost metaphoric for us.”
Chicago is fertile ground for ensemble theater troupes born out of hardcore friendships.
“You see plays at Steppenwolf or Lookingglass, and those were a bunch of friends who wanted to just do great things through the theater,” Battiste said. “Their work is absolutely on par with anything happening on Broadway. And that’s because the Chicago theater scene is one of the most vibrant in the world. We’ve gotten a warm welcome from the theater community here. I can say that might not have been the case had we chosen New York to start. [Laughs.] In New York, when a new company starts, it’s like ‘there’s one more we have to compete with.’ But here it’s all about ‘the more the merrier.’ There is such incredible talent in this city whether it’s actors or writers or directors and we’re hoping to tap in to all of that.”~.