Steppenwolf debuts new digital play by award-winner James Ijames

  • Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members K. Todd Freeman, left, and Jon Michael Hill star in the digital premiere of James Ijames' two-hander "What is Left, Burns."

    Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members K. Todd Freeman, left, and Jon Michael Hill star in the digital premiere of James Ijames' two-hander "What is Left, Burns." Courtesy of Lowell Thomas

 
 
Posted11/5/2020 11:42 AM

Playwright James Ijames and director Whitney White were deep into rehearsals for Steppenwolf Theatre's local premiere of Ijames' "The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington" when the COVID-19 pandemic forced its postponement.

White, a Chicago native, was heartbroken.

 

"It was painful the day I left the theater," said actor/director/musician White. "Steppenwolf was a place I always wanted to work. It meant a lot to me that it was my first production coming home."

"Miz Martha Washington" was also to mark Ijames' Steppenwolf debut. He is still making his debut there but with a different play -- "What is Left, Burns" -- and on Steppenwolf's virtual stage, which the company established for subscribers and other theatergoers disappointed by the shutdown.

"As we went along we said, 'Let's be bold instead of retreating,'" said associate artistic director Leelai Demoz. "We were very aggressive ... Luckily, James works very quickly."

Jon Michael Hill, left, and K. Todd Freeman
Jon Michael Hill, left, and K. Todd Freeman -
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Accepting Steppenwolf's commission for a digital play, the prolific playwright scrolled through his ideas journal and wrote about the reunion between poets and former lovers Keith and Ronnie titled "What is Left, Burns." Written for Steppenwolf's virtual stage series and directed by White, it stars ensemble members K. Todd Freeman as a distinguished writer, recently divorced and nearly retired, who, after many years, re-connects with his mentee, played by Waukegan native Jon Michael Hill.

Ijames wrote a first draft quickly and enlisted two friends for a teleconference reading, but something didn't feel right. So he switched the characters from a man and a woman to two men, something closer to his experience as a Black gay man.

The action unfolds during a Zoom call, a format with which Ijames, an award-winning writer and Villanova University associate professor, has become familiar.

"I'm constantly striving for clarity when I'm speaking during those meetings because things get lost in translation," he said. "People hear what they want to hear."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But a brief digital exchange between his characters didn't satisfy the overachieving Ijames.

"I need to know what happened before," he said, "so I wrote everything that happened before and after that moment."

As a result, he ended up writing a full-length play about these characters, which includes the digital scenes that viewers will see. Whether the full play will be staged at some point remains to be seen.

James Ijames' "What is Left, Burns" premieres digitally at Steppenwolf Theatre. Chicago native Whitney White directs the two-hander starring K. Todd Freeman, left, and Waukegan native Jon Michael Hill.
James Ijames' "What is Left, Burns" premieres digitally at Steppenwolf Theatre. Chicago native Whitney White directs the two-hander starring K. Todd Freeman, left, and Waukegan native Jon Michael Hill. - Courtesy of Lowell Thomas

White loved the "What is Left, Burns" script, which she describes as a funny, uplifting tale about two men finding hope for the future.

"James wrote a piece that showed another sliver of Black life," said White, a veteran of the Goodman, Court, House, Chicago Dramatists and About Face theaters, among others.

"It's a piece that has more light than dark," she said.

With Steppenwolf and White on board, work began anew on the new work.

Ijames singled out Freeman and Hill for what he described as sensational work and praised White and photography director/video editor Lowell Thomas.

"Whitney is a genius at extending the theatrical imagination of a play," he said. "The play that landed in her hands has been magnified and adorned in this beautiful way through her vision."

While circumstances forced White, her cast and design team to condense the rehearsal process and be more economical, she insisted the production have real production values and not look like every other Zoom adaptation.

Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members K. Todd Freeman, left, and Jon Michael Hill star in the company's virtual premiere of "What is Left, Burns" by James Ijames.
Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members K. Todd Freeman, left, and Jon Michael Hill star in the company's virtual premiere of "What is Left, Burns" by James Ijames. - Courtesy of Lowell Thomas

"We mailed (the actors) colored light bulbs. We sent them projectors," along with other elements they could easily manipulate, she said, adding the production's success testifies to the faith the artists had in each other.

"The amount of trust that James had with me and the actors, the amount of trust the actors had with me," she said, "trust is what made this possible. It's what makes working in a new medium possible."

That new medium poses challenges as well as opportunities. It makes her wonder: "Is there a way to create content that doesn't take away from live experience but adds to it?"

Only time and perhaps "What is Left, Burns" will tell.

• • •

"What is Left, Burns"

When: Beginning Wednesday, Nov. 11

Where: Streaming at steppenwolf.org

Tickets: Memberships to Steppenwolf Now, the theater's six-play virtual season, are $75 and $50 for students, teachers, essential workers and artists. Free for Steppenwolf's 2020-2021 classic members, black card and red card members. steppenwolf.org/now.

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