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Thank You to the Cast of My Play, The Great Debate

The following information contains full profiles of the director and cast of my debut play, "The Great Debate: It's Out of This World," which premiered earlier this month at Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago Stories Gala detailed here. I cannot thank them enough for bringing my words to life.--Chaz Ebert

Lanise Antoine Shelley, director

Lanise Antoine Shelley is a Haitian actress, director, and painter. Selected assistant directing credits include: the world premiere of Plantation (Lookingglass Theatre, dir. David Schwimmer), Nell Gwynn (Chicago Shakespeare), and Snow Queen (American Repertory Theater, AD & Choreographer). Lanise has also worked as a director with 16th St. Theater (also as a movement consultant), with Lookingglass Theatre’s Summer Lab, and directed a staged reading at Stratford Shakespeare Festival. 

She has studied abroad six times and holds a BFA in Directing, Acting, and Playwriting from Cornish College of the Arts and an MFA from ART/MXAT at Harvard University. Lanise also holds a certificate in Classical Theatre from BADA in Oxford, England, and was a Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Chicago Fellow 2016. Other works can be viewed at

Lawrence Grimm as Abraham Lincoln 

Founding ensemble member of A Red Orchid Theatre credits include: Small Mouth Sounds (Jeff Nomination – Ensemble), 3C, Trevor (Jeff Nomination - Actor), In a Garden, Pumpgirl, and Abigail’s Party among many others. 

Other Chicago area credits: Hannah and Martin at Shattered Globe (Jeff Nomination- Actor), King Charles III, The Tempest (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), 2666 (Goodman Theatre), The Upstairs Concierge (Goodman – New Stages), My Name is Asher Lev (Timeline Theatre), In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play (Victory Gardens), Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter (Next Theatre), Orlando (Court Theatre), Two by Pinter (Piven Theater Workshop),The Glass Menagerie at Raven Theatre, (Jeff Award - Actor), The Brothers Karamazov, 1984, (Lookingglass), I Never Sang for My Father, Wolf Lullaby (Steppenwolf). Film: Captive State, Welcome to Me, Perfect Manhattan, Cicero in Winter. Television: The Red Line, Chicago PD, Chicago Med. , Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Education: B.A. Kenyon College, M.Ed De Paul University.

Debra Neal as Sojourner Truth

Debrah’s credits include Empire (FOX); The Chi (SHOWTIME); and The Red Line (CBS). On stage she has appeared in what Chris Jones theatre critic with the Chicago Tribune says “she kills”, in Windy City Playhouse’s Chicago Premiere of Booty Candy. He also wrote “I particularly enjoyed debrah neal’s saucy Miss Corinne in the Non-Equity Jeff Nomination (Ensemble) Shakin the Mess Outta Misery, Pegasus Theatre Chicago. Most recently Hedy Weiss, theatre critic with WTTW News calls her “the wholly remarkable debrah neal” in Definition Theatre’s No Child.

Other stage credits include Congo Square Theatre Company’s World Premiere, Sanctified (Black Theatre Arts Alliance Nomination - Best Featured Actress in a Play) and winner of Best Play, Hansberry Theatre Company’s The Old Settler, ETA Creative Arts Foundation’s Heat (African-American Theatre Alliance Nomination - Best Ensemble), Chicago Theatre Company’s (Equity Jeff Award – Best New Work) Love Child and more. debrah’s directing credits include Fleetwood Jourdain Theatre’s Home, Clockwise Theatre’s World Premiere of goodness, Ohio based Living The Dream Touring Company’s What it Be Like, Bowen Park Theatre’s The Meeting and Hansberry Sands Theatre Company’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men to name a few. Some of her on-camera and print work; State Farm, Jewel Foods, McDonalds, GE Healthcare, Motor City Casino, Bright Lift, and Crest. debrah also has a number of independent and short films to her credit.

Jelani Pitcher as Martin Luther King Jr.

Jelani is the recent winner of Chicago’s Black Theatre Alliance “Best Actor in an Ensemble” award for his role as Booth in Topdog/Underdog (Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre). 

Originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he received his BFA in Acting from Ithaca College. 

Since graduating, some favorite roles include: George in Our Town (Artistry MN), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in The Mountaintop (Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre), George in Sweet (Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre), Edgar in King Lear (Theatre at Monmouth), Isaac/Adrian in A Home on the Lake (Piven Theatre Workshop), Thami Mbikwana in My Children! My Africa! (Civic Ensemble), Kaleb in Slashes of Light (Kitchen Theatre), and Othello in Othello (4615 Theatre Company).

Rashada Dawan as Surprise Guest

These are just a few words to describe the voice of this down-to-earth, triple threat performer.

Born and raised in the windy city of Chicago, IL, she started with her first ballet class at the notable Southside YMCA at four years old. Upon graduating from Beasley Academic Center, Rashada decided to leave her good friends and go on to Curie Metropolitan High School (which was then deemed as a performing arts high school), where she became the first female conductor for the Curie High School Gospel Choir.  In her senior year, she was bit by the “acting bug” and performed in her first leading role as Deena in the high school’s production of Dreamgirls. Little did she know, a few months shy of graduating from Florida A&M University, she would return to play the role of Deena again in college. While majoring in psychology with a theatre minor, Rashada served as lead vocalist of at least four bands including the innovative Concept Live, toured with the Tom Joyner’s Fantastic Voyage Cruise, sang in the FAMU Gospel Choir, joined Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and served on the University’s Royal Court as Senior Attendant all before graduating with her degree. After graduating from FAMU, Rashada returned home to look for work. She eventually got a call from her best friend to audition for a children’s show at Chicago’s eta Theatre. From there, she quickly got casted in productions with some of Chicago’s finest theatre companies including: Bailiwick Chicago, Chicago Shakes and the Black Ensemble Theatre.  By day, she worked in a mental health community center as a Training Director; by night, she was a star.

Rashada went on to receive her graduate degree in Human Performance and Training Consulting while starting her own production company to later showcase her two original pieces– Israel’s Daughter and For Colored Girls Who Dance Instead. After deciding to pursue acting full time, Miss Dawan received a Black Theatre Alliance Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Aida in Bailiwick Chicago’s Aida. After Aida closed, she and over 500 hopefuls auditioned for Disney’s The Lion King. After waiting for at least 5 hours as #407, Rashada auditioned and was asked to come back to read for the role of principal character “Shenzi.” 2 months later, she was asked to join the Lion King Las Vegas cast and eventually to join the Lion King Gazelle National Tour. Since then, she has returned home to Chicago and is currently up for two Jeff Awards as Best Lead Actress in her performances in Caroline or Change as “Caroline” and as the lead vocalist in Djembe The Musical. 

Currently, she can be seen in various theatre productions throughout the nation, singing with the critically acclaimed soul band, Chicago Soul Spectacular, or serving as the Executive Director of B.Fli Productions, Inc. where the mission is to increase mental wellness and decrease violence through performing arts. 

Jimmy Demers as Surprise Musical Guest

Jimmy Demers is an American singer-songwriter, best known as "the original voice" of the "Always Coca-Cola" ad campaign. He is a contributor to The Huffington Post. Demers was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts. He moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music and was soon one of the first artists signed by John McClain to Interscope Records. Throughout the 1990s, Demers recorded jingles for many high-profile clients, including Chevrolet, AOL, McDonald's and the groundbreaking worldwide campaign of "Always Coca-Cola". He was a member of an R&B/pop group, Truth Inc.

Demers has traveled widely, singing in, among other venues, Shanghai, where he performed at the closing ceremonies for the Special Olympics World Summer Games, and Versailles. He has been a featured singer to sports organizations in the United States and has sung the U.S. national anthem at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Arthur Ashe Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Chase Field. Shortly after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, Demers, along with other celebrities and high-profile supporters, went to Kuala Lumpur to lend his support to the Force of Nature concert for Tsunami Aid. While in Kuala Lumpur, Demers sang for the King and Queen of Malaysia at the Royal Palace.

Demers has worked with music industry figures Diane Warren, David FosterGiorgio Moroder and Tim Rice. He has recorded back-up vocals for many artists, including Garth Brooks, Patti LaBelle and Cher. His debut album Dream A Little, produced by Terry Coffey for the Concord Music Group was released to critical praise. His brother Donnie Demers wrote the words and music to several of the songs, including "It's A Lonely World" (which was featured on the Sirius radio show of author Deepak Chopra.) Paula Abdul has referred to Demers as "the greatest male vocalist in the world" and hosted An evening with Jimmy Demers in Los Angeles. A&M Record's co-founder Herb Alpert, Billie Dee Williams and model Cheryl Tiegs were among those who joined Abdul as Jimmy and Donnie performed to a capacity audience. Demers has headlined sold-out shows at the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel and Lowes Regency Hotel in New York City. He performed at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, England, with Donnie Demers, for The Skoll World Forum Awards. He currently resides in California and practices Transcendental Meditation.

Steven N. Miller as The Moderator

Steven N. Miller is a founding partner of Origin Ventures. Prior to co-founding Origin, Steve spent 10 years at Quill Corporation, a direct marketer of office products started by his family in 1956. His experience there included running the Canadian distribution center as well as P&L responsibility for a $30 Million product line. Steve’s final two years at Quill were devoted to starting up the e-commerce operation. He wrote the business plan for the company’s first web site,, and managed the team that executed it to $15 Million in annual revenue. In 1998, the Miller family sold Quill to Staples and achieved a $1 Billion exit.

Steve serves on the boards of Backlot Cars, Impact Engine, and VHT, and was previously a director of doggyloot and Shoutlet. He was on the board of GrubHub (NYSE: GRUB) for the first four years after Origin led the company’s initial round of venture funding. Prior to its sale in 2004, he served on the board of directors of iNest. He was also an investor and advisor at, before it was acquired by Time Inc. in 2006.

Steve is president of the board of Victory Gardens Theater and vice chair of the Better Government Association. He is a board member of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, as well as Stage 773, and serves the Metropolitan Planning Council as an Executive Advisor. Steve is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago and the University of Illinois Foundation, and was awarded the 2014 Richard J. Daley Medal by the Illinois Venture Capital Association.

Steve received a B.S. degree in Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1987, where he now chairs the Dean’s Business Council and serves on the board of the Hillel Foundation. He also provides funding for the Steven N. Miller Entrepreneurial Scholarships, the Diane N. & Steven N. Miller Centennial Chair in Business, and the Origin Ventures Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Illinois.

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 24th year.

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