One of the best things about the Masters program at Illinois State University that I am currently involved with has been meeting people like Le'Mil Eiland. There's no two ways about it: Le'Mil is awesome.
He's also one of six theatrically inclined friends who attended Thornridge High School in the late 90s who've gotten back together to form a new theatre company in Chicago. It's called the Collective Theatre, and its very first show opened last night at the Athenaeum Theatre on Southport Avenue in Chicago.
That show is Katori Hall's Hoodoo Love, a heady concoction of dreams, superstition, love, jealousy, deception and singing the blues. It's set in Memphis in the 1930s, where a woman named Toulou yearns to be a singer in a jukejoint just off Beale Street. Toulou dreams not only of musical fame, but of catching the eye of Ace of Spades, a blues man with a wandering soul. She's so desperate to have him that she goes to her friendly neighborhood hoodoo woman to get a love spell.
The spell works, but it's one of those "Be careful what you wish for" scenarios, realizing Toulou's dreams in a way she could never have imagined. The music of desperation and desire is woven throughout Hoodoo Love.
Nelsan Ellis, one of the six founding members of the Collective Theatre Company as well as star of HBO's True Blood, directs a cast that includes Lynn Wactor as Toulou; Toni Lynice Fountain as Candy Lady, the hoodoo woman; LaRoyce Hawkins as Ace of Spades, and Mark Smith as Jib, Toulou's double-dealing brother. This production of Hoodoo Love runs through October 21, with tickets available here or by calling 773-935-6875.
Aside from all going to Thornridge, Le'Mil Eiland and the other five founders of the Collective Theatre Company all participated in speech and theatre. Eiland, Ellis, Broadway veteran Francois Battiste, Chicago actress and teacher Veronda G. Carey, marketing and promotions manager Metra Gilliard and metallurgist and engineer Jasond Jones were all state champions, too, which is no mean feat.
As it happens, I have vivid memories of The People Could Fly, the "performance in the round" that won Le'Mil a state championship in 1998. It was a stunning little show, one that showed just how good "performance in the round" can be.
Eiland also competed in Drama and Oratory at the state level. As for the others... Battiste was half of a Dramatic Duet Acting team that won state in 1994, while Carey and Gilliard won as a duo in that same event in 1995, Jones took the state trophy home in Group Interp for The Colored Museum, and Ellis was a state champion in Oratorical Declamation in 1997.