Second City e.t.c.’s ‘Soul’ finds its groove

by LP Green, II

These days at Second City, items of technology have replaced spouses and lovers as the chief antagonist, just as those items of technology have replaced spouses and lovers in real life. Or become them.

In “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?” — the well-stocked new revue at the Second City e.t.c. — the actor Eddie Mujica actually plays an emotionally manipulative iPhone who has a difficult conversation with his owner about preferring not to be turned off at any point, and certainly never forced merely to vibrate. In another moment, the apparent sudden death of a precious Apple product results in a New Orleans-style funeral for the device. There is a quick-fire noting of that most hellish of workplace mistakes: accidentally hitting “reply all.” And then there is the baring of the heart, the go-for-broke declaration: “I love you more than Netflix.”

These are great ideas, each sketch cut a little too short, actually, in a funny show (directed by Anthony LeBlanc) that has a habit of ending sketches when they still have gas. That’s always far preferable to the other extreme, but you still wish LeBlanc and his cast sometimes probed in more depth and with more confidence in their ability to sustain. After laughing at that Netflix line, I kept thinking about what loving someone more than Netflix might actually involve, never mind how the heck that DVD-in-the-mail company suddenly ascended to so lofty a spot in the zeitgeist.

After a weak few opening minutes, “Soul Brother” settles nicely into its speedy groove and is one of those Second City Shows that feels as if it has a lot of stuff, disparate stuff, at which to laugh.

The e.t.c. has been shaken up a bit, with newcomers Rashawn Nadine Scott, Lisa Beasley and Scott Morehead all added to the returning Carisa Barreca, Tim Ryder and Mujica. It’s also worth noting that “Soul Brother” is one of very few revues in the long history of Second City to be directed by an African-American, which adds some resonance to the clever title.

Now Second City has to work on diversifying its audiences. At one point Friday night, Beasley, performing an old-school sketch in which performers look in the mirror for their reflection and find an audience member, said something like this: “In all the weeks I’ve been doing this with you guys, I’ve never looked out at someone who looks like me.” Friday, she did. The emotionally resonant Beasley, who had an interesting sadness about her throughout the night, seemed quite verklempt.

Scott and Beasley combine for the show’s most interesting sketch. At the beginning, Scott utters the most notorious of the racial epithets, which, predictably, causes a frisson to descend on the room. “Some of you didn’t like that,” she says, playing an African-American man on the streets of Chicago. “It’s just a word we can say and you can’t. But you get to say things we can’t. Like ‘I can’t breathe, officer.'”

Scott came to the fore at Second City after appearing in its superb collaboration with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, “The Art of Falling.” Her persona is, thankfully, a long way removed from the theater’s progression over the last couple of years toward a certain camera-ready, fake-news, “Daily Show” look. Aside from diversifying its cast — and this is a diverse cast in every way — Second City shows always work best when one or two of the performers can be credibly working class. For it’s often forgotten that class is as important a part of this work as race; it’s behind much of the potential material. Scott brings that class mobility to the party, along with a certain moral authority and some fearless physicality. It will be interesting to see what the business decides to offer her, in Chicago and beyond.

Her show offers plenty more. Mujica dominates a funny piece set in the cruise-friendly Cuba of the future, wherein Cubans note the irony of Americans now going there. On a boat. A concussion-plagued NFL commercial reminds us all to “keep the violence on the field.” And then there’s the unleashing of technology on the audience.

On the video monitors on the stage we see a collage of information about a pair of random audience members, culled from merely their names and making the point that a few improvisers with an Internet connection and access to Google Images can find out everything about you in seconds. Life-hacking is not a new idea at Second City, but it lands especially well here such that it’s not so much “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?” as “Soul Brother, We Got Your Number.”

By Chris Jones

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