Bailiwick Pride Series 2001 presents Passing Ceremonies

Bailiwick Pride Series 2001 presents Passing Ceremonies

By Edith McCauley

By Edith McCauley

Theater Critic

The series of plays staged at Bailiwick Theatre in Chicago based on gay and lesbian issues provides a showcase for new works. Running through the end of August, it gives theater patrons the opportunity to see innovative and sometimes controversial avant garde productions.

Passing Ceremonies by playwright Steve Willis of Greensboro, N.C., originally written for a performance there, was also staged at the Pride Festival in Atlanta. A brilliantly researched work, its premise is that Bruce Nugent, an outspoken artist and poet of the Harlem Renaissance, encounters Essex Hemphill, a contemporary writer, in purgatory. Hemphill, a victim of AIDS, has used his pen to bring the war on this devastating illness to the forefront. His inability to finish his project keeps him in a continual state of rage.

Nugent, played by Al Boswell, sits in a cafe overlooking the river, drinking Campari, reminiscing and cruising Rafael (George Aviles), his “Beauty.” Sean Nix is Essex. His intense portrayal resonates. In the intimate space of the Studio Theater, we feel the emotional turmoil. His friend, Joseph Beam, preceded him in death, and his voice from across the river lends little comfort.

Willis’ excitement on having his play produced at the prestigious Bailiwick festival was shared with the audience at a discussion following the performance. Unpretentious and charming, he is unique. Hopefully, Passing Ceremonies will be staged again soon. The play began with his research on Essex Hemphill. Several readings of Hemphill’s poetry inspired the playwright to find an appropriate and challenging character to share the stage with Hemphill. Little was known of Nugent, but after finding the executor of his estate, the collection of art and personal memories made possible the rich and eccentric characterization.

Directed by Terry Cullers with Sylshina London as stage manager, the drama with its simple set requires only the poetry of Nugent and Hemphill, their interaction and the repeated theme of the world’s AIDS crisis. Cullers wisely lets the piece speak for itself.

The 2001 Pride Series continues at Bailiwick through August. Under the direction of David Zak, the theater at 1229 W. Belmont in Chicago has grown and continues to receive wide and enthusiastic support from the immediate and larger community. For details on upcoming productions, call (773) 883-1090 or www.bailiwick.org.

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