“Oh Great Intentions”/Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury Invite You to Come On Feel the Feels

Issue Six: Illinoise
Arminda Thomas
March 19, 2024
Arminda Thomas

Arminda Thomas (she/her) is a dramaturg, director, and archivist. She currently serves as resident dramaturg and producing member of CLASSIX, and as a curator for New Perspectives Theatre’s On Her Shoulders reading series, where she has led explorations into the works of Marita Bonner, Eulalie Spence, Georgia Douglass Johnson, and Alice Childress. Selected dramaturgy credits include The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (Jones Theatre/Brooklyn Academy of Music), Death of a Salesman (Hudson Theatre), Renaissance Mix Tape (Apollo Victoria), Trouble in Mind (Hartford Stage), Wedding Band (Theatre for a New Audience), Black Picture Show (Artists Space), Mirrors (Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop), Black History Museum...According to the United States of America (HERE Arts Center), Jazz (Baltimore Center Stage), and June and Jean in Concert (Signature). She previously served as archivist and dramaturg for Dee-Davis Enterprises, where she was an executive producer for the Grammy-awarded audiobook, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, and consultant for the film Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee.

Headshot by Katie Piper

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.


I suspect that you don’t have to be well-versed in Illinois, Sufjan Stevens’ acclaimed 2005 album, to appreciate or enjoy Illinoise, choreographer Justin Peck and playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s stunning if imperfect adaptation currently playing at the Park Avenue Armory. I, however, cannot resist checking out source material, and it turns out that an extensive state-specific research project set to arresting music is dramaturgical catnip. (Note: the title to Track #2, “The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You're Going to Have to Leave Now, or, 'I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!’" is maybe the best non-land acknowledgment land acknowledgment I have come across.)

If there is an overarching theme to the album, it is the struggle to make sense of history, be it national, regional, religious, or personal — and Stevens calls on the listener to join him in that reckoning, breaking the musical fourth wall to draw us in with his confidences (“I can tell you”), his questions (“Are you one of them? Are you writing from the heart?”), and open invitation (“It only starts with you”).

Ricky Ubeda and Ben Cook in Illinoise at Park Avenue Armory. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger

Taking up the invitation, Peck and Drury set themselves the task of crafting a story using all of the album’s music and songs (with some deviations in song order), and no additional dialogue. On the stage floor, the dancers perform, while on the scaffolding above, a 14-piece band with three vocalists give a full concert. The vocalists (Elijah Lyons, Tasha Viets VanLear, and frequent Stevens collaborator Shara Nova) sport various types of wings, a nod to Stevens’ live shows as well as, perhaps, to the many things that take flight in this show: drones and UFOs, wasps and cardinals, and at times their own soaring voices. Above them, scenic designer Adam Rigg pine trees hang upside down in a bit of playful strangeness that serves the piece well.

The story that they land on discards or downplays most of the heady historical material in favor of a simpler new adult tale full of big emotions, and just enough whimsy to keep it from drowning in them. Also, UFOs! At least I’m pretty sure that is what compels this group of strangers to take a long hike to some remote Illinois field to camp out and share stories. Joining them is our protagonist, Henry (Ricky Udeba — in a sly homage to its predecessor, the characters are all named for Illinois counties or landmarks — though only Henry’s name appears outside of the program). After a troubling visitation (dream? haunting?) Henry has left his lover Douglas (Ahmad Simmons) behind to come on this journey. While his fellow campers revel in and “celebrate [their] sense of each other,” Henry hangs apart, holding his butterfly-covered journal close to his body, reluctant to speak even as he is drawn into their tales.

Of the campers’ stories, the most successful for me was “A Story About Jacksonville.” Composed as a celebration of a town named for Andrew Jackson which became a noted stop on the Underground Railroad, there’s an air of defiant optimism in the song (“I’m not afraid of the Black man runnin’; he’s got it right, he’s got a better life comin’”), which is embodied in a fearless and exuberant intergenerational dance by Rachel Lockhart (with a contemporary hip-hop flair) and Byron Little (with Nicholas Brothers-like tap dance moves). That number is followed by the least effective of the act (and the night), “A Story about Zombies.” Riffing on the song’s full title (They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!), Peck has the storyteller on the run from the likes of Ronald Reagan, Christopher Columbus, and Jerry Falwell. It’s a much more partisan spin than the original, in which Stevens shouts out Illinois ghost towns and a few famous dead as a vehicle for facing his own mortality, but that would be fine if the staging worked. Instead, it runs out of steam while reducing the song to a single joke that feels old long before it ends.

Illinoise at Park Avenue Armory. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger

The second act of Illinoise is dedicated to Henry’s story, which begins in a “small town in the middle of Nowhere,” where Henry lives with his childhood friends Carl (Ben Cook) and Shelby (Gaby Dietz). The story itself is fairly straightforward, even mundane when summarized. But in its execution — the interplay of movement, music and vocals — it is exquisite: the subtle tension that undercuts the easy chemistry and play of Udeba, Cook, and Dietz as the trio becomes a triangle; Henry and Carl’s excellent adventures in a van created by their bodies and a red wheel; the unexpected appearance of a city pay phone and the sudden shock of hearing terrible news in a public space; Henry’s awkward attempt to recreate his and Carl’s dance with Douglas; the open ache in Elijah Lyons’ performance of “Predatory Wasp of the Palisades'' as Henry’s growing love for Douglas runs parallel to his mourning the loss of Carl; and the absolute gut punch of Shara Nova’s soprano and Peck’s choreography for “Seer’s Tower.”  

Act Three returns us to the campfire where, with the encouragement of his fellow travelers and joined by Douglas, Henry is able to release his lost friends in a gorgeous reprise of “Chicago.” The closing song doesn’t quite land, it feels necessary dramaturgically but emotionally is a little too generic and cheerful and neat. Still, it does provide a closure to the evening, and an opportunity for me to shout out ensemble member Robbie Fairchild, who oozes charisma and kindness in the camping scenes and makes his “Man of Steel, Man of Heart” number more convincing and charming than it has any right to be.

Finally, a cautionary note. The show program contains/replicates “Henry’s Diary.” As I made it to my seat just before the lights went down, I didn’t get a chance to look at it until the show was over. I highly recommend doing the same. Written by Drury, the “diary” provides a backstory that accounts for elements alluded to in the songs but not shown in the actual performance, as if someone did not quite trust the piece to stand on its own, without an explainer. At best, it is a lagniappe — lovely to look at, not really necessary to the thing itself. At worst, in “Henry’s” own words: “putting things into words, I’m afraid it will make what we were to each other…cliche? Or seem small?” I’m afraid naming the danger does not prevent it. Besides, it’s rude to read other people’s diaries.

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