Playwrights: Olivia Dawson, Ray Proctor. At: eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. Tickets: www.etacreativearts.org; 773-752-3955; $30. Runs through: March 9
There's a whole mess o' sketch comedy, a touch of tenderness and a pinch of psychodrama in Out Loud, a Chicago premiere at eta Creative Arts Foundation. It's a winning combination as directed by co-author Olivia Dawson and performed by an engaging cast with comic chops to spare. But that's not all.
Out Loud concerns a straight woman and a gay man who become best friends, discovering and testing the limits of patience, acceptance andeventuallylove in the manner of all deep relationships, whether romantic or platonic. It's not, specifically, a gay play but it's the first I've seen at eta with an openly gay character shown in a positive light. Being gay doesn't make Benny's issues easier for him but the issues would be there, anyway. The opening-night audience was notably gay, a first in my experience at the eta theater. As Glinda the Good said to the Munchkins, "Come out, come out wherever you are!"
Benny comes from an upbringing he describes as "mean, abusive" and is caught between escaping that world and a white world which he identifies as more romantic and tolerant, even as it pigeon-holes him into African-American male stereotypes. He is drawn to unworthy white boyfriends. Eva, for her part, understands how difficult it is for a woman to live and act independently, and constantly throws up emotional walls even as she seeks male approval, and methodically hunts for a father for the children she's eager to have. Benny and Eva, both aspiring actors, call each other's bluffs and sometimes get rough, but mainly it gets funny, very funny.
Co-authors Dawson and Ray Proctor are the models for Eva and Benny and the play, really, is distilled double autobiography of two smart, educated and caring people who have no sacred cows: they touch on racism, reverse racism, Black-on-Black violence, white stereotyping, the n-word as used among Blacks, the church, white casting directors and more. I don't think anyone can see Out Loud without changing his/her thinking a little bit. For example, the play referenced a song by Rodgers and Hammerstein which the audience immediately picked up. If I'd been asked beforehand, I would have said, "Oh, African-American audiences don't know R&H." A small thing, but thanks for the attitude adjustment.
The cast of Out Loud is a treasure. Watson Swift and Melanie Loren offer charm and passion as Benny and Eva, with Swift bringing a hint of mature weariness to Benny, balanced by Loren's vivacity. Quick-change artists Nakia Allen and David Guiden play everyone else, defining characters both Black and white in a flash, to devastating comic effect. Guiden, given greater opportunities than Allen, offers a particularly brilliant comic performance.