Pulse Theatre Chicago, a company founded and led by Columbia College Chicago Theatre Department alumni, has received national attention for its critically praised new production of Edward Albee’s landmark 1962 drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, running through August 20 at City Lit Theatre, located in the Edgewater Presbyterian Church at 1020 W. Bryn Mawr in Chicago’s Edgewater Theatre District.
The production — directed by Columbia College alumnus Chris Jackson ’14, a graduate of the Theatre Department’s BFA Program in Musical Theatre Performance — features a diverse non-Equity cast, with African-American actors in the lead roles of George and Martha, which are traditionally played by white performers. That led Howard Sherman to report on Pulse’s production in the Arts Integrity Initiative blog published by the School of Drama at The New School in New York City. In an article headlined “Contrary to What You’ve Heard, You Can Cast Albee Plays Diversely,” Sherman pointed out that Jackson’s casting of actors of color in Virginia Woolf “seemed to contradict the prevailing takeaway” from an earlier controversy regarding an Oregon theatre that was denied rights to the play because of its plans to cast an African-American in the supporting role of Nick in Albee’s classic drama.
Sherman also cited a review by Chicago Tribune critic (and Columbia College alum) Kerry Reid ’87, who said that “the [casting] choice gives us plenty to think about as the long night’s journey into day unfolds in George and Martha’s living room, especially given Lewis R. Jones’ and Nicholia Q. Aguirre’s protean and sometimes-hypnotic performances as the toxic hosts. [The] mere presence of these skillful actors asks us to consider these characters and their demons from fresh angles. . . . Pulse’s Virginia Woolf leaves us disquieted, pondering whether the existential horrors anatomized by Albee hit all of us equally in a still-unequal society.”
Jackson’s production also received praise from Newcity‘s Hugh Iglarsh, who wrote: “Who’s Afraid is a difficult play to watch but Pulse Theater’s skillfully acted, full-throttle production is painful with a purpose, capturing the work’s formidable darkness, complexity and ambiguity. . . . Director Chris Jackson gives us a black George and Martha, rendering those avatars of dessicated WASPdom more universal.”
And Windy City Times critic Sean Margaret Wagner wrote: “There’s even more to be said for this treatise on the brokenness of white American marriage and success when it is delivered in part by a duo whose outsidership and rejection are implied. . . . The actors . . . each brought an amazing voice and physicality to their roles. . . . What comes with [this] portrayal of a non-white George and Martha is a new perspective on power dynamics.”
Columbia alums Pablo Ponce ’13 and Claire Chrzan ’11, both graduates of Columbia’s Theatre Design program, are the show’s scenic and lighting designers respectively. Sasha Smith, a former student in the Theatre Department’s Acting BA program, is the show’s fight choreographer.
Set in the early 1960s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? concerns a middle-aged married couple in a college town — George, an associate professor of history, and Martha, the daughter of the college’s president — who invite a younger couple to their home very late one evening. The guests — a biology teacher at the college and his wife — walk into a quagmire of drinking, fights, sex, games, and delusions.
Pulse Theatre Chicago was cofounded in 2014 by Jackson and his fellow Columbia College alumnus Aaron Mitchell Reese ’12, a graduate of the Theatre Department’s Theatre Directing Program.
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