The Era Footwork Crew
Choreographers, Dancers, DJs, Filmmakers
The Era Footwork Crew became ambassadors and keepers of the flame for the lightning-quick street dance born on Chicago’s South and West Sides some twenty years ago. The crew performs and teaches nationally and internationally, and their new stage show, “In the Wurkz” premiered at Links Hall in December—an evening-length performance that earned them an award from the New England Foundation of the Arts, alongside national names like Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Camille A. Brown & Dancers, which will allow them to take the show on tour. Most importantly, in 2017, the crew founded “Open the Circle,” a nonprofit dedicated to teaching footwork dance, music and culture to Chicago kids, keeping the scene vibrant, giving youth a creative outlet through classes and summer camps, and inspiring the next generation of dancers.
Director, Actor; Artistic Associate, Firebrand Theatre
Whether placing an old musical in new light or bringing a new play and new voices to the forefront, Lili-Anne Brown has made a name as Chicago’s director: her work sings, moves, and speaks to our city in ways vital and present. Brown’s work includes her award-winning revival of “Caroline, or Change” (Firebrand Theatre), Ike Holter’s “Lottery Day” (Goodman Theatre) and the searing cultural satire “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle” (Jackalope Theatre). After more than a decade as a professional actor, Brown is a genius of movement, with an unblinking eye for stage composition, as adept in chaos as in stillness. Her directorial work has a definitive rhythm and unique melody, even without musical numbers (although her musical theater output has been a heart, mind and game-changer). This spring she’ll return to the Goodman to helm the acclaimed hit “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” in its local premiere.
Director; Ensemble Member, The Gift Theatre; Artistic Associate, Sideshow Theatre Company
Marti Lyons has style. In a city of abundant talent, her name is on a shortlist of folks whose work ought never be missed. Her productions are instantly recognizable. She has an eye for collaborators, fusing sound, light, costume and scenery into unique mise-en-scène, turning too-often-produced works like “Macbeth” into sensory and psychological delights. And while Lyons could probably turn any play into a contemporary classic, her work with women playwrights—including Calamity West, Lauren Yee, Lily Padilla, Jen Silverman, Eleanor Burgess and Sarah DeLappe—represents the pinnacle of her output, with each more exuberant and excellent than the last. Lyons has added to her already impressive credits in and among the cutting-edge storefront world with directing gigs at premiere regional theaters here (Writers, Chicago Shakes) and far-flung (Woolly Mammoth, Geffen Playhouse). This spring, she heads out to South Coast Rep before returning to the Midwest to direct at the venerable American Players Theatre. Fly, drive, run, boat, cartwheel: it doesn’t matter how you get there, just be sure you don’t miss anything bearing her name and artistic emblem.
Director; Artistic Producer, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Splitting his time between two theaters that share several letters and a deep appreciation for ensemble-based acting, Jonathan Berry handles his schedule the way he handles his frequently expansive casts: with grace and taste. In just the past two years, Berry has directed nine productions, with an average cast size of eight, from the colossal “Earthquakes in London” at Steep Theatre to the more intimate “The Children” at Steppenwolf. These two examples demonstrate Berry’s mastery of space: fifteen actors in a tiny storefront and three on a substantial mainstage. Berry’s gifts for management extend into the administrative and educational in his work as an artistic producer and director of The School at Steppenwolf. While he has only one production forthcoming (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound” at Steep), the future seems equally bright and busy for Berry.
Kevin Iega Jeff
Co-Founder, Artistic Director, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater
For over twenty years, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, co-founded by Kevin Iega Jeff and Gary Abbott, has been Chicago’s leading contemporary dance company grounded in African-American dance. Jeff has been a leading creative voice, creating more than fifty works for Deeply Rooted and commissions—locally and nationally—for Alvin Ailey, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre. Jeff recently announced that he would be handing over the artistic leadership of the company to Nicole Clark-Springer, and focusing his energy on the development of a South Side-based dance center that would not only serve as a new base of operations for Deeply Rooted, but an incubator for new arts groups with aligned missions. In May, the company will present a new piece, a collaboration with gospel artist Donald Lawrence.
Artistic Director, Paramount Theatre
In his eighth year as artistic director of Paramount Theatre in Aurora, Jim Corti directed two Broadway showstoppers, “Newsies” and “The Producers,” the latter earning him another Equity Jeff Award for direction. Meanwhile, his home theater was nominated for sixteen Equity Jeff Awards and won two. Paramount’s programming includes the Broadway series, concerts, film screenings and Chicago-based comedic imports, offering residents of the west suburbs an opportunity to see world-class art without boarding the Metra. Last year, the company opened the Paramount School of the Arts, offering classes for aspiring artists of all ages. A small-town citizen running one of the biggest regional theaters in the country, Corti lets the community into his life with his weekly column on the Paramount website, “Tuesdays with Corti.”
Calling himself “mildly popular” in his website bio and “medium famous” in his stand-up, comedian, actor, podcast host and returned Chicagoan Hannibal Buress has hit his stride. While he can fill theaters on tour around the country, in his hometown, you can catch him in much smaller rooms, from pop-up shows at the one-hundred-seat capacity North Bar to drop-ins at Cole’s Bar’s Comedy Open Mic. Buress also shows up as a surprise bonus for touring friends (like Eric Andre at Chicago Theatre). Buress’ contributions to Chicago culture go beyond comedy: last year he showed up in a Chicagoist video with Chance the Rapper to shed light on Chicago’s ward system, and his Melvina Masterminds—an arts, science and technology center for youth on Chicago’s West Side—is set to open sometime in 2020.
Wardell Julius Clark
Director; Company Member, TimeLine Theatre Company
Wardell Julius Clark went on a dizzying directorial tear two years ago and has hardly slowed since. Commencing at Stage Left Theatre and moving through some of the city’s best and brightest storefronts (Red Tape, Jackalope), including a fruitful collaboration with fellow Player (and former Newcity contributing writer) Loy Webb, Clark picked up a slew of accolades along the way. He found time to grace the stage as an actor in Raven Theatre’s “Suddenly Last Summer,” as well as “Flyin’ West” at American Blues, where he got the chance to learn from director Chuck Smith. This winter Clark helms local premieres of two works: James Ijames’ “Kill Move Paradise,” which finds four black men trapped in purgatory, at TimeLine, and “Sheepdog” at Shattered Globe, a work on racial conflict and police brutality, topics never far from Clark’s conscience. Outspoken and politically engaged, his rise is a net positive for the theater community and will give way to more chances for his many talents to shine.
An underappreciated subgenre of Chicago theater: the plays that you take the people who think they don’t like theater to. Enter: Ike Holter. Holter has arguably done more than any single individual in the last five years to raise Chicago’s theatrical profile, both within and beyond city limits. The success of his productions have always been a group effort, perhaps no more so than with “Lottery Day,” which premiered at the Goodman last year and brought Holter’s “Rightlynd Saga” to its highly anticipated finale. Directed by fellow Player Lili-Anne Brown and featuring a resplendent who’s who of characters from the Holterverse, “Lottery Day” was the kind of show you wanted to get on stage and become a part of, a theatrical delight the likes of which are rarely seen anywhere. Since that show closed, Holter’s pace has drifted toward that of a mere mortal, albeit it one whose gifts are now being appreciated by the rest of the world: he recently wrote for the FX series “Fosse/Verdon,” starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, and has a Playwrights Horizon commission on the way. And while L.A. and New York have come calling, Holter and his signature rollerblades continue to cut across the streets he calls home.
Tarell Alvin McCraney
Playwright, Actor; Ensemble Member, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
The release of “Moonlight” (2016) may have put an international spotlight on Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Chicago theater community has known of his talents for well over a decade. This past year saw a reunion between McCraney and Steppenwolf, with a production of “The Brothers Size,” directed by Monty Cole as a part of the company’s programming for young adults, and the world premiere of “Ms. Blakk For President,” a one-of-a-kind theatrical event, which starred McCraney as Ms. Blakk and reunited him with another Chicago theater celebrity, Tina Landau. (Landau directed “The Brother/Sister Plays” in 2010, as well as the world premiere of “Head of Passes” in 2013.) McCraney wrote the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird,” about a sports agent’s intrigues during a basketball lockout, which debuted on Netflix in February, and created “David Makes Man,” a coming-of-age drama featuring Steppenwolf ensemble member Alana Arenas, for the OWN cable network. He has been the chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama since 2017, which could become the most important of his many projects: educating and training a new generation of storytellers.