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Interview: Ebert & Ebert Musical Stars Kevin Pollack and Rashada Dawan

The highly anticipated "The Black White Love Play (The Story of Chaz and Roger Ebert)" at the Black Ensemble Theater has found its cast. Local stars Kevin Pollack and Rashada Dawan will play Roger and Chaz Ebert, respectively. 

Pollack appeared in the Black Ensemble Theatre production of "Men of Soul," playing the one and only Joe Cocker. Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones said that Pollack's Cocker made the audience go "ballistic." You can check him out singing "With a Little Help From My Friends" below. 

Dawan earned raves on the touring edition of "The Lion King," travelling the country with the award-winning play. Check out the clip below of her singing the song from her audition that landed her the part. She also recently appeared in a Bailiwick Chicago production of "Aida."

"The Black White Love Play" is written and directed by the founder of the Black Ensemble Theatre, Jackie Taylor, who proposed the idea to Chaz Ebert and received her permission. She also gave Ms. Taylor complete creative control. This play will detail, through song, the courtship and marriage of Chaz and Roger Ebert, including a performance with a 7-piece orchestra. Tickets are on-sale now and the play runs from previews starting Saturday, September 26th, through Sunday, November 15th. The grand opening night is Sunday, October 4, when Mrs. Ebert will be in attendance. 

What has the work of Roger Ebert meant to you?

KEVIN POLLACK (KP): Roger Ebert is a huge inspiration to me. I am a huge movie buff and I always liked to read and hear Roger's opinions. I also grew up watching Siskel & Ebert on TV. What I loved about Roger was he always spoke his mind no matter what.

RASHADA DAWAN (RD): I honestly knew very little about Roger prior to taking on this project. I knew that he was a film critic and an icon in Chicago. I just never knew why. I really had no clue of how influential he was as a man and as a writer before my research. Now, I see why he was and still is so loved. After working inside of this process, I am moved by his passion above all else. He believed in what he felt and thought and seemed to be unapologetic about his ideas and thoughts. I truly admire that. I also really love that he embraced equality as much as he did.

How did you first learn of the project?

KP: While I was performing in Black Ensemble Theater's production of "Men of Soul," I read about auditions for the show and told myself I would do whatever it takes to get the role of Roger Ebert. At first, I didn't know the true love story of Roger & Chaz. My mom happened to own Roger's memoir “Life Itself,” so I started reading on my downtime to get more familiar with him.

RD: I learned about the project while in Sedona, Arizona. I had decided to take some time away and simply sit in peace in the mountains. When I was able to get reception on my phone, I got a text from Rueben Echols, Associate Director of Black Ensemble, asking if I would come to audition for a role they thought I'd be perfect for. I didn't know what show or what role. I just said "Sure." Once I got there, I realized that at that particular audition, I was the only person auditioning to play Chaz (and I still didn't have a clue what the play was). [There had been other auditions where other actresses had tried out for the role of Chaz.] Once I found out, I couldn't believe that I had landed such a legendary (and leading) role! I was (and still am) so elated and honored.

When approaching a role that is based on a real person, what is the challenge like of melding your own artistic instincts with the research process?

KP: To be honest, it is a little challenging. I've never really played a real person until I played Joe Cocker and Billy Joel in BET's "Men of Soul." You have to live up to people's expectations, and it can be difficult. I acted like Joe Cocker with all the contortions, but vocally I added a little bit of Kevin in there. For Roger, I'm becoming him more and more slowly in every rehearsal process. Everyone has their own way of researching a role. For Roger, I've been reading his memoir, watched the documentary “Life Itself” multiple times, and watched interviews with Roger on YouTube. The more I see and hear him, the more comfortable I am with being in his skin. Also, when the costumes come into play, it also helps.

RD: Playing a real person is a lot of pressure, especially when they are so beloved all over the world. I realize that because there are so many ways that I identify with Chaz, I find myself wanting to express myself when I have to remember to express through her. I have watched nearly every interview (and as you know, there are MANY). I look for the similarities and nuances when she talks about certain things. Sometimes, we don't know what we actually look like outside of ourselves, so I just hope I can make her proud and tell her love story properly.

How has the project evolved during rehearsals?

KP: When working on a new musical, the script is always changing, so you have to get used to it and go with the flow. This script has changed a lot since the first read-through, but it is always getting better. Roger and Chaz evolve more and more. Once the blocking and the orchestra come in, everything feels a lot different.

RD: Wow, what a dynamic evolution this has been! We seemed to fly through Act 1 but then Act 2 is when things really begin to unfold. Chaz's character definitely hits some peaks that I have to brace myself for. Working with Kevin (playing Roger) has also been a joy. We definitely have grown from being acquaintances to becoming very close partners in this process.

What aspects of your conversation with Chaz have proved helpful?

KP: Getting to know Roger's characteristics and traits really helped. When Chaz told stories of how Roger acted at parties and his humor, it brought me new insight. In reality, the way she talked about herself and Roger really touched me. Getting to know the stories and facts from the person that Roger spent his life with, and who knew him like no other, was a huge influence. It meant a lot that Chaz opened herself up to us. Also, getting to see Roger's office and getting to touch things that were personal to him helped me feel him with me.

RD: Every moment of sitting with Chaz thrills me. I got to experience her hospitality, sincerity, see her poise and hear her passion first hand. And she is so funny! Hearing her tell jokes simply delighted me. I also enjoyed hearing her tell stories about her mother. She is an amazing woman.

What do you believe is the relevance of this story in light of current events?

KP: To eradicate racism and hate from this world. People should not be judged by their race, creed, or color. Love is love, and if two people of different races want to be together, there is nothing that should stop them.

RD: This story is about love and we are in need of as much as we can get these days. Marriages are struggling,  families are distant, children are dying, racism is still lurking its ugly head. We need to be reminded that love is still real and can endure through it all. Chaz and Roger's story is evidence and should be an inspiration of just how possible it is to love regardless of how anyone else feels about it. This story teaches me about the power of love and that in the end, every sacrifice made on its behalf is always triumphant and shall endure forever.

To purchase tickets, call the Black Ensemble Theatre box office at 773-769-4451, or visit the venue's official site. The theatre is located at 4450 N. Clark St. in Chicago. Previews are September 26th & 27th and October 2nd & 3rd. Opening night is October 4th, and the play runs through November 15th. Showtimes are 7:30pm on Thursdays, 8pm on Fridays, 3pm & 8pm on Saturdays and 3pm on Sundays.

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