Theater

Review: 'Voice of Good Hope' creates powerful portrait of Barbara Jordan

I’m embarrassed. City Lit Theater Company has been on my periphery for awhile, but it wasn’t until I discovered playwright Kristine Thatcher’s marvel, “Voice of Good Hope,” that I paid attention. And I’m sorry because I wonder now what else I’ve missed.

Chicago’s City Lit Theater was founded in 1979 by Arnold Aprill, David Dill and Lowell Wyatt, and at that time was the only theater in the U.S. devoted to stage adaptations of literary masterpieces. For over 40 years, City Lit has explored fiction, nonfiction, essays, biographies and dramas in performance with works by authors from Henry James to Alice Walker.

And until Oct. 1, City Lit is offering a free viewing of “Voice of Good Hope,” although donations are happily accepted. Best of all, you can watch anytime night and day between now and that date.

The original cast including Black Theater Alliance Awards nominees Andrea Conway-Diaz and Noelle Klyce are back for the virtual reading of the entire play. Directed by
Terry McCabe and originally presented in January and February, the seven-member ensemble play is a bio-drama about Barbara Jordan, the first African-American congresswoman from the South.

It’s a poignant and electrifying play that follows Jordan from her childhood in Houston through receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, roughly from 1948 to 1994. The play also deals significantly with her position on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment trial of President Richard Nixon, her political and philosophical dilemmas testifying on behalf of Texas governor and nemesis John Connally, and her struggle with muscular dystrophy, which coupled with pneumonia, ultimately ended her life at the age of 59 in 1996.

The play for the most part is structured in five scenes with the majority in this presentation shown as two-people scenes, with all characters clearly labeled. Many of the scenes begin with monologues from actual Jordan speeches – most notably her July 25, 1974 dialogue about abandoning the Constitution to a paper shredder and having reason, not passion, guide the debate and decision in the impeachment of Nixon. (Still very relevant and chilling today.) The final scene also has a heart squeezer with an impassioned “one people, one national community … e pluribus unum from many, one” – culminating in fear of a divided nation.

So the play is well written, albeit lengthy. Is it well acted? You better believe it. Despite some lighting and sound problems (the nature of virtual Zoom/video presentations), the ensemble is quite strong. Andrea Conway-Diaz has a magnificent voice and portrays Jordan as feisty, independent, ebullient, resilient and extremely intelligent from the get-go.

“Always the Black girl who put her head down and plowed through.” Conway-Diaz’s emotional containment, particularly when describing John Connally’s discrimination or her experiences while driving to Boston for a debate (Jim Crow laws from Tulsa to Youngstown), is just masterful.

Susie Griffith’s Nancy Earl, Jordan’s housemate, speechwriter and later caregiver is another strong character full of grace and exuding responsibility. Sahara Glasner-Boles as Dr. Karen Woodruff bookends the plot and makes her mark quite believably as a medical professional with a spark of humor; McKenzie Boyd is the young 12-year-old Barbara, nicknamed “Heart,” and is a calm, feisty, independent, sweet version of the woman to come.

Paul Chakrin is a marvelous Robert Strauss, Barbara’s Democratic colleague, who comes to ask for her to testify as a witness for John Connally. Naturally, she has an “intestinal response to the whole request.” Chakrin’s portrayal is of a gentlemanly, congenial, old school politician, even when Barbara reminds him, “Don’t go for a political favor unless it’s already in your pocket.” Noelle Luce is Julie Dunn, the former Constitutional law college student of Jordan's, who comes to ask for an endorsement. Luce is fresh, eager, and incredulous at Jordan’s decision.

I adored Jamie Black as John Ed Patton, Barbara’s maternal grandfather. Black plays grandpa like the one relative everyone wishes they had – supportive, loving, wise, a guide who puts up with not much. He’s the one who teaches Barbara, “I take the narrow way with the resolute few,” and he makes the distinction that Barbara has perspective and sees the world from a mountain top.

I was always taught that the earmark of a strong play is that it entertains as well as educates. “Voice of Good Hope” does both. This is another play brought to our viewing attention as a result of the pandemic. Listen to this voice, don’t let it pass you by. And City Lit Theater, from now on, you’re in my sights.

• Regina Belt-Daniels has been involved with theater since the first grade in countless productions throughout Illinois, Ohio and upstate New York. She awaits the return of what she loves to do best: act, direct, teach, travel with her husband, and attend live theater.

IF YOU VIEW

WHAT: "Voice of Good Hope" by City Lit Theater Company

WHEN: Free until Oct. 1; 104 minutes

INFO: citylit.org, 773-293-3682

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