Falling in love and falling apart at Illinoise: An Inside View featuring Jackie Sibblies Drury

Issue Six: Illinoise
Brittani Samuel
March 19, 2024
Brittani Samuel

Brittani Samuel (she/her) is a Caribbean-American arts journalist, theatre critic, and the co-editor of 3Views on Theater. Her work has appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Broadway News, Elle, Glamour, Observer, Vice, and several other places on the Internet. She is an alum of the BIPOC Critics Lab and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute, as well as the inaugural recipient of the ATCA’s Edward Medina Prize for Excellence in Cultural Criticism. To read more of her published work, visit BrittaniSamuel.com. To chat about how great Rihanna is, visit her on Instagram @brittaniidiannee.

Nidia Medina

Nidia Medina (she/her) is a theater producer and artist who was worked professionally in many aspects of non-profit theater over the last 17 years. She serves as Producing Director of INTAR Theatre, where she was previously Associate Artistic Director, producing the award-winning run of Vámonos by Julissa Contreras. Recently she has also worked with WP Theater as Artistic Producer, leading the charge on the wildly successful run of Sancocho by Christin Eve Cato, and served as Interim Producing Director at The TEAM. Other producing positions include being a Line Producer at The Public Theater, Associate Producer and Director of the Studio at Theatre for a New Audience, Special Projects Producer at WP Theater, Associate Producer at INTAR and more. She has produced everything from Shakespeare in the Park, a film, an international tour, to boundary-pushing off-Broadway shows in some of New York’s most prestigious houses with some of theater’s most brilliant creative minds.  In addition to her producing work, Nidia is also a writer, performer and curator of programs and artistic happenings. Her work also includes student outreach and sitting on grant panels. She holds a BFA in Acting from Emerson College and a Master’s in Arts and Cultural Management from Pratt Institut

Editor's Note from Nidia Medina: There was a point early on in my watching of Illinoise that I wondered, "Uh oh, am I smart enough for this?" which certainly stemmed from the immediate realization that I had stepped into a show with no dialogue whatsoever, not a single word that wasn't sung or physically embodied. HOW DO I DEAL WITH THAT? I did decide ultimately that yes, I am smart enough, because my specialty is stories, and this piece is ultimately, a story. This was a show that I walked away from with mixed thoughts -- what was successful for me, what wasn't -- but the show stuck with me for days after, as I rolled parts of it around in my head, peeled away my initial impressions, and thought of the bits that deeply resonated (a beautiful love connection between two dancers, the sadness of losing someone you love slowly to illness and the different ways grief takes hold). Ultimately, that is probably the best bit of this show - the little seed it plants in your mind (heart?) that just keeps growing long after you've walked away from the Armory. That you can keep coming back to it, for something that annoyed, something that confused, titillated, excited, made you cry.  Oh also, the other thing I thought immediately about this show was, "I cannot WAIT to read what Brittani, Natasha, and Arminda think."  Enjoy.


What does theater owe us? Sure, catharsis is therapeutic. Entertainment is always a welcomed reprieve. But when hoards of strangers gather in the dark and agree to reject our primitive inclinations — to talk, to burp, to scroll — what’s our due? These are the questions running through my mind while sitting in the historic Park Avenue Armory’s cavern of a theater space and experiencing the dizzying, heartbreaking, indulgent Illinoise.

Illinoise is the nearly eponymous theatrical erection of acclaimed artist Sufjan Stevens’ concept album Illinois. This Park Avenue production boasts an “all-star creative team,” which includes Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Jackie Sibblies Drury. When I relay these questions to Drury and ask what she takes away from the fever-dance-dream of a production, her answer is immediate: “Even when I'm taking notes throughout the show, I cry. I cry at different points. When they're measuring each other's arms, I cry. When they leap, I cry. Sometimes when they kiss, I cry…I have the experience that I think that theater was created to do which is to feel empathy for people in a different situation that’s somehow still related to my own situation. And inspire me to go out into the world and see people as people, and recognize everyone's individual humanity. That’s what the show is made for or, at least, made towards.”

Byron Tittle and Robbie Fairchild in Illinoise at Park Avenue Armory. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger

So perhaps empathy is what’s due at the end of every evening (or afternoon) of theater. Compassion is what we gain in exchange for taking the train to richer parts of Manhattan and holding in post-dinner gas. In Illionise the protagonist Henry (Ricky Ubeda) is our vehicle of empathy. He is a young man who travels from Chicago to New York City with his best friend (or brother, or lover — the intimacy of their relationship is felt, but not defined) Carl (Ben Cook). When a tragedy beckons them home, Henry doesn’t return, opting instead to stay in New York and nurture a bubbling new love. But back in Chicago, the tragedy doubles, ultimately calling the ever-resistant Henry home. Somewhere back in his mother state of Illinois, Henry unites with a group of other young people who gather around a campfire to tell a bit of their life stories. All this tender, heartfelt exposition in just 90 minutes and none of the twelve cast members onstage ever utters a word.  

Dance is the primary language of Illinoise. Director-choreographer-co-writer Justin Peck builds impressionist movement and naturalistic gestures to successfully relay Henry and Carl’s stories. The “players” (as they are called in the show’s program) are backed by a compact, but nevertheless epic team of emotive vocalists and expert instrumentalists getting busy on everything from the accordion to the xylophone. The sounds emitting from the Park Avenue stage whip from twinkly to damn near symphonic under Nathan Koci’s musical direction.

It led me to wonder (and bluntly ask), what the hell does a playwright do in rehearsals of a show with no script?

Drury, through laughs, answers. “I know it’s like, ‘I can't do that, I don't do that, I wouldn’t know how to do that.’ Ultimately, my job was to respond. I was trying to understand what they were doing and describing what I was experiencing back to the dancers…Aside from that, we would have conversations about how people were thinking about what their character was going through, almost like joint therapy. But then for the other stories, for example in the first act of the show where there is an ancestry tap story, we had an amazing conversation about Black ancestry in America and the history of presenting tap on stage. How that history is both Savion Glover, yes, but also minstrelsy. How do we hold those things and make sure that we're thinking about them responsibly?”

If minstrelsy seems like an outlandish reference point, referring back to the Illinoise’s source material may offer some understanding. When Sufjans’ original concept album debuted, critics specifically praised the musician’s sneaky ability to weave historical and religious events into a musical turn of phrase. Parts of the record that sound the most airy and whimsical reference UFO sightings, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr., and the Underground Railroad.

According to Drury, however, these seemingly disparate elements weren’t a chore to work with. “There was never a moment when we were like, ‘Oh, I wish that this song wasn't on this album.’”

A comment I found a bit unbelievable until Drury went on further, “Our lighting designer Brandon Stirling Baker is incredible. He spent so much time in rehearsals — he's had a long collaboration with Justin — and I ended up talking with him a lot. Especially because there are no words. Lighting is already emotional in straight plays, but here because of what the show requires he has to figure out how to set up a sunrise, how to make lighting feel naturalistic at times, but also like a rock concert. How to evoke a sense of being outside in nature during the campfire scenes at the top of the show. You don't always get to do all that as a lighting designer; to have that much time, that many tools, and that many worlds to try to blend together.”

Illinoise at Park Ave Armory. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger

This may be what continues to nip at me about Illinoise. It’s a gargantuan physical production, irrefutably gorgeous, but oozing of indulgence. The best of designers, the best of dancers, the best of collaborators -— creativity gone rogue. More than once, Illinoise has to run away from its Henry-Carl narrative in order to honor the orgy of allusions Sufjan makes in Illinois. As previously mentioned, there is an ancestry tap story that plays on Black Americans’ legacy in Chicago. Other numbers feature political zombies and Superman. Peck has strong aesthetic control over all of it, staging and choreographing these scenes beautifully, but they run so thematically far away from the central love story, the only thing that plants this theatrical venture on any solid ground.

The most affecting part of Illinoise is the quiet, vulnerable Henry at its center, a boy prone to falling in love and falling apart. Because isn’t that what we’re all doing every damn day? Falling in love with the chubbiness of our baby nephews, the way our crush looked in his latest Instagram post, the never-before-attempted dinner recipe that was way easier than it seemed. Falling apart at poor updates about a parent’s health, at witnessing violence in a subway, at war.

Love and grief govern today’s society. Illinoise is at its best when it lets these emotions (or are they actions?) govern it as well.

“It does feel like the show is about sharing yourself with your community. The importance and sacredness of that. And the healing possibilities of that. Outside of two years ago, before I started working on this show, I was a very cynical person. This show has been a real practice in having faith and in earnestness. It’s hard to be joyful and show your heart. It's hard to be emotional and show your heart. It's embarrassing. We are all constantly hiding ourselves from each other and that's making us sick. The reason to keep sharing the show with audiences is to hopefully have people feel moved by it and have people respond to the idea of being in community. An arts community, sure, but also one of your own. I don't even know if I answered your question. I started rambling about sharing stories.”  

Rambled, shared stories — perhaps, that’s all that we’re owed.

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