For February, we asked the Tribune's arts critics for their best suggestions for entertainment for Black History Month. From the worlds of Chicago theater, music, dance and beyond — regardless of whether they are promoted as Black History Month events, and adding the note that many of Chicago's stages and cultural institutions boast diverse programming 12 months of the year — here are their picks.
'Seven Guitars' at Court Theatre
Black History Month should be a time for earnest reflection. But there should also be room for a celebration of African-American culture, a space for an infusion of the joy of what black history has wrought. For us all. I suppose you have to say that August Wilson is a part of history now, being as the great man has been dead for more than eight years. But to many of us in Chicago, Wilson remains a living, vibrant presence. So it will be as long as we have his plays, each an exploration of one decade of the African-American experience of the 20th century.
The blues infuse many of Wilson's plays but none more so than "Seven Guitars," a play that takes place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, like almost all of Wilson's plays. But Chicago actually has a stronger presence in "Seven Guitars" than any other Wilson drama: It functions as a town of aspiration, a place where any black man would want to be, we're told. But Chicago also is a city that has already knocked down these characters, who have retreated, wondering if they should try again. The fine director Ron OJ Parson understands that "Seven Guitars" is one long riff on doubt and uncertainty. But his vibrant production at the Court Theatre also gets the other message of "Seven Guitars." Wilson is saying that you've still got to make your music, whatever history comes your way. And at Court, so they do.
Through Feb. 16 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.; $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org
'Queenie Pie' by Chicago Opera Theater
Duke Ellington's reputation as one of the titans in the history of jazz rests primarily on such classic songs as his "Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," "Satin Doll" and others. But who recalls that Ellington also composed an opera? Ellington wrote "Queenie Pie" as a TV vehicle for Lena Horne, but the piece remained unfinished at his death in 1974. Outfitted with additional Ellington songs to complete the score, the opera's Chicago premiere by Chicago Opera Theater promises to be a major addition to the city's celebration of Black History Month.
"Queenie Pie" was inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker, the first female African-American self-made millionaire, who made her fortune developing and selling women's hair and beauty products. The Chicago Opera Theater's production will "contemporize" and also make the opera "timeless," according to director-choreographer Ken Roht, who created his staging for this show and the Long Beach Opera, which premiered it earlier this week in Southern California. "Queenie Pie" is "a neglected gem, fascinating musically, dramatically and historically," says Andreas Mitisek, who directs both opera companies.
Feb. 15 to March 5 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive; $35-$125 at 312-704-8414 or chicagooperatheater.org
Wadada Leo Smith, Douglas Ewart and Mike Reed at Constellation
Three important figures in 21st-century jazz — Wadada Leo Smith, Douglas Ewart and Mike Reed — will converge on the city's most prominent nexus for experimental music, Constellation. No, the event is not billed as a celebration of Black History Month. But the legacy of African-American culture in general, and its musical rituals in particular, radiates through their work.
Last year, composer-trumpeter-bandleader Smith was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his epic work "Ten Freedom Summers." The sprawling opus contemplates critical moments in the struggle for civil rights, the titles of its movements telling the story: "Dred Scott: 1857," "Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless," "The Freedom Riders Ride" and "Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days."
Reedist Ewart has been a key figure in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians for decades — his work as soloist and in uncounted ensembles extending the definitions of jazz, improvisation and new music. Most recently, he appeared on one of the best recordings of 2013, "Voice Prints," a free-ranging experiment in sound and spontaneity with Yusef Lateef, Roscoe Mitchell and Adam Rudolph.
Drummer Reed has been a dynamic figure in Chicago jazz for the several years. It was Reed who last year acquired the old Viaduct Theater space on North Western Avenue and transformed it into Constellation. To hear him collaborating with Smith and Ewart in this already indispensable venue is to hear — and to celebrate — the resonances of black musical culture.
9:30 p.m. Feb. 28 and March 1 at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $15; constellation-chicago.com.