Middle Passage

February 14 – April 5, 2020

$25 Previews: February 14-24
 (Fri at 7:30pm, Sat at 8pm, Sun at 4pm)
Regular Run: Feb. 27-Apr. 5 (Thu & Fri at 7:30pm, Sat at 4pm & 8pm, Sun at 4pm)

Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed Illinois slave eking out a living in 1830 New Orleans, stows away aboard The Republic, an outbound rigger, to evade debtors enforcing marriage. But his clever escape backfires as the clipper turns out to be a slave ship bound for Africa. Calhoun must choose between a fanatical captain, a mutinous crew, and the Africans seeking escape. Building on a tradition of African American storytelling, this tale challenges perceptions of American identity using a Black aesthetic. We are at a critical historical moment in which issues such as racism, classism, poverty, and the meaning of freedom impact us all.

Lifeline Artistic Director Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III revisit Johnson’s epic tale, originally mounted at Pegasus Theatre in 2016 under the title Rutherford’s Travels, to share a tale of personal growth within a dark phase of American history. Of Middle Passage, the Chicago Tribune said, “Long after we’d stopped believing in the great American novel, along comes a spellbinding adventure story that may be just that.”

Based on the novel by Charles Johnson

Adapted by Ilesa Duncan & David Barr III

Directed by Ilesa Duncan

Special Performances:

Audio Description and Touch Tour
Saturday, February 29
   Touch tour: 2:30pm
   Performance: 4pm

Open Captioning
Sunday, March 1 at 4pm
Friday, March 27 at 7:30pm

Visit our Accessibility page for more information.

  • Shelby Lynn Bias (Isadora/Ensemble)

    Shelby is thrilled to be returning to Lifeline after finishing her time studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. Her past credits at Lifeline include: Eleanor in Northanger Abbey, as well as understudying Miss Buncle’s Book. She has worked on several workshops around the city and has worked with Halcyon, Foundlings, and Unexpected Theatre Lab.

  • Patrick Blashill (Captain Falcon/Ensemble)

    Patrick has been an Ensemble Member with Lifeline since 1996 and has been performing at Lifeline since 1994’s Miss Bianca, where he played Bernard the mouse. Other favorite Lifeline roles include Towny in Midnight Cowboy, Old Bailey and the Earl in Neverwhere, and Bunter in Strong Poison (Non-Equity Jeff nomination: Ensemble). He is especially proud to have acted in all three of Lifeline’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, spanning The Fellowship of the Ring (Bilbo Baggins), The Two Towers(Frodo Baggins), and The Return of the King (Frodo Baggins). Patrick has worked with numerous other Chicago theatres, including Eclipse Theatre (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Theatre Mir (The Sea), Backstage Theatre Company (A Number), Filament Theatre (Eurydice), Griffin Theatre (Journey’s End), and Reverie Theatre (Emma). Patrick has also appeared as Mickey on Chicago PD for NBC Universal.

  • Hunter Bryant (Jackson/Ensemble)

    Hunter is happy to be making his Lifeline Theatre debut. Recent Theatre credits include: Choupette (Museum of Contemporary Art), The Shipment (Red Tape Theatre), The Aristophanesathon (Hypocrites), Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea (First Floor Theater). FILM: How Is This The World, First Dance. TELEVISION: Empire (FOX). MUSIC VIDEO: We Go High – Chance The Rapper. He graduated with a BFA in Acting and a BA in Creative Writing from The Theatre School at DePaul University in 2017 and is represented by DDO Artists Agency. @Behunting

  • Bryan Carter (Zeringue/Ensemble)

    Bryan is excited to be making his Chicago debut at Lifeline Theatre. Past credits include: The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, Clybourne Park, Sweeney Todd, and as Nat Turner in Nat Turner in Jerusalem at the Kennedy Center Theatre Festival. He has a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and has trained with Jane Drake Brody, Adria Dawn, Phillip Edward Van Lear and Eric Gerard. Bryan is extremely thankful to be a part of this highly gifted ensemble and production team that has invested in his life and career.
  • Demetra Dee (Baleka/Ensemble)

    Demetra is extremely excited to be making her Lifeline debut in Middle Passage. A few of her credits include: Luanne in Be Here Now (Shattered Globe), Ernestine in Crumbs from the Table of Joy (U/S Performed) (Raven Theatre), Patrice in Comfort Stew (ETA Creative Arts), Neena in The Green Book (Chicago Dramatist), 2018/2019 Shattered Globe Program, and many others. She is represented by DDO Chicago. 

  • Andrés Enriquez (Peter Cringle/Ensemble)

    Andrés returns to Lifeline’s stage in his first role since he became a part of the Artistic Ensemble! Previous Lifeline credits include: Sylvester, Northanger Abbey, and Sparky!. Chicago credits include: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Merrily We Roll Along (Porchlight Music Theatre), Killing Game (A Red Orchid Theatre), A Wonderful Life, My Way (TATC), Adding Machine (Hypocrites), and Love and Information (Remy Bumppo). Regional credits include: School House Rock Live! (Birmingham Children’s Theatre), The Fantasticks, The 39 Steps (Shawnee Theatre), The Woman In Black (Iowa Repertory), and Scapin (Colonial Williamsburg). Andrés also serves as Lifeline’s Casting Director, and is represented by Gray Talent.

  • LaQuin Groves (Santos/Ensemble)

    LaQuin is a Chicago based actor born in Los Angeles and raised there and Chicago. This is his 4th production with Lifeline Theatre where he was last seen as Vandemar in Neverwhere [2018].  You may have seen him as Edmond in Miss Holmes or as John Savage in Her Majesty’s Will.  In the last year he has performed for TAI at The California Theater in San Bernardino for productions of Tarzan as Kerchick, CATS as Old Deuteronomy, and Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. He has also played Father in Children of Eden at Performance Riverside and Bullfrog/Turkey in Honk! at Music Theater Wichita and San Gabriel CLO.

  • Christopher Hainsworth (Josiah Squibb/Ensemble)

    Christopher has been an ensemble member since 2010. Past Lifeline roles include Oliver in Talking It Over, Israel Hands in Treasure Island, Marquis De Carabas in Neverwhere [2010], Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, Dhatt in The City and The City, Athos in The Three Musketeers, Buford/Taylor in The Killer Angels, Evermonde/Barsad in A Tale of Two Cities, Mycroft in Miss Holmes, Islington in Neverwhere [2018 Ext.], Alphonse/Creature in Frankenstein, and Bob/Mack in The One and Only Ivan (Tour 2019). He has also penned the adaptations of Hunger, Monstrous Regiment and Midnight Cowboy and the KidSeries show Fable-ous! He has also been seen onstage at The House Theatre of Chicago, Strawdog, Uma, WildClaw and Seanachai. He is represented by Big Mouth Talent.

  • Michael Morrow (Rutherford Calhoun)

    Michael is ecstatic to be making his Lifeline Theatre debut. Michael’s recent credits include: Twelfth Night (Midsommer Flight), Macbeth (A Crew of Patches), and Cyrano de Bergerac  (Michigan Shakespeare Company). He is a graduate of The Theatre School at DePaul University.

  • Jill Oliver (Tommy/Ensemble)

    Jill is delighted to be making her Lifeline Theatre debut! She was last seen in Killing Game at A Red Orchid Theatre. Jill spent 9 years as an ensemble member of The Factory Theater where she produced, directed, wrote, and acted in over a dozen shows. In addition to the Factory, Jill has worked around Chicago with Artistic Home, Irish Theatre of Chicago, Shattered Globe and Wayward Productions. Jill is represented by Hayes Talent Agency.

  • David Stobbe (McGaffin/Ensemble)

    David is happy be working with Lifeline and this cast of artists. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, he was recently seen in Nashville Children’s Theater’s world premiere of Auntie Claus, another recent credit includes the world premiere of Bury Me by Brynne Frauenhoffer. He worked across Chicago with companies such as Peninsula Players, Porchlight Theater, Dandelion Theater, Theo Ubique, A Red Orchid Theater, The Black Ensemble Theater, Steep Theater, Metropolis Performing Arts Center, and Jackalope Theater. A founder of the Bittersweet Arts Co. which had an award winning run with their production of Forsythian Dweller’s Club in which he played “Celeb-Jay”.

  • Andrew Bosworth (u/s Josiah Squibb/Ensemble)

    Andrew is joining Lifeline for the first time. A recent transplant to Chicago, he will be teaching Demidov Technique this year with associates from the Rose Valley Theatre Group and Akvavit Theatre. He received his MFA from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training and has worked in Wisconsin, Iowa, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida. andrewbosworth.weebly.com.

  • Carter Caldwell (u/s Cringle/McGaffin)

    Carter (he/him/his) is thrilled to be a part of the Middle Passage team. Chicago credits include: Red Bowl at the Jeffs and Neil and Shelly Try Something (The Sound,) The Black Keys Live In Concert (The Boxcar at Steep Theatre,) and May the Road Rise Up (The Factory Theater.) Next up is All-One! The Dr. Bronner’s Play (The Passage Theatre.) Other acting credits include: The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield, Dracula, and Home Invasion (Actors Theatre of Louisville.) Carter is also a freelance producer and works with the film collective Means Of Productions. www.cartercaldwell.com

  • Chelsea Dàvid (u/s Tom/Ensemble)

    Chelsea is thrilled to be working with Lifeline for the first time! Other Chicago credits include: Macbeth (The Arc Theatre), The Rogue Aviator (Otherworld Theatre), Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.), The Fly Honey Show [9 & 10] (The Inconvenience); Michael Glover Smith’s indie films COOL APOCALYPSE (2015) and Rendezvous in Chicago (2018) to name a few! She’s proud to be represented by BMG Talent Chicago. You can catch her on stage at Drunk Shakespeare Chicago several times a week performing improv and sketch comedy.

  • Whitney Dottery (u/s Baleka/Isadora/Ensemble)

    Whitney feels honored to be returning to Lifeline and working on her second show this season. She was last seen as Bunny in Bunny’s Book Club, and you may have caught her last season as Petey in BunniculaOther recent credits include: Love and Information (Trap Door Theatre), Wolf Play (The Gift),
    Aesop’s Fables (Raven Theatre), among others. Whitney is an alum of Columbia College Chicago and is represented by NV Talent.  Catch her next at Buffalo Theatre Ensemble as T.C. in Naperville by Mat Smart. www.whitneydottery.com

  • Grant Lewis (u/s Rutherford Calhoun)

    This is Grant’s first time working with Lifeline Theatre. He has previously worked with The Jacobins, where he played Cortez in their world premiere of The Book of Sebastian, and with Windy City Playhouse as an understudy for The Recommendation. He also made a brief appearance on this current season of Chicago Med. Grant graduated from Northwestern University in 2018 with a degree in Theatre and Linguistics.

  • Shole Milos (u/s Captain Falcon/Ensemble)

    Shole is a Lifeline Ensemble member who has been working with Lifeline since 1993 since performing in 101 Dalmatians and My Father’s Dragon. He has appeared in productions of Mariette in Ecstasy, Johnny Tremain, The Piano Tuner, and the original productions of Whose Body? and The Emperors Groovy New Clothes. He directed the MainStage production of A Long Way From Chicago as well as numerous KidSeries productions including all the stories in the Click Clack Moo catalog, How To Survive a Fairytale, and many others.

  • Elliot Sagay (u/s Jackson/Ensemble)

    Elliot is thrilled to join the Middle Passage team. Recent credits include: Call Me Madam (Porchlight Music Theater) and Big River (Round Barn Theater). Apart from acting, Elliot writes plays and is an avid soccer fan. He received his B.A. from Northwestern University.

  • Noah Thomas (u/s Santos/Papa Zerinque/Ensemble)

    Noah is grateful to join the Middle Passage cast and is even more thrilled to be a part of Lifeline Theatre. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin Platteville with a double major in Psychology and Theatre, but also took roles in shows like: Estragon in Waiting for Godot, The Ghost of Christmas Future in A Christmas Carol Ballet, Aldolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone, and J.B Biggley in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

  • David Barr III (Co-adaptor)

    David is the author of several published works for the stage including Death Of The Black Jesus, Ev’ry Time I Feel The Spirit, The Face Of Emmett Till (Dramatic Publishing), and Black Caesar (PerformInk). His stage works around Chicagoland have been produced at Goodman Theatre, Pegasus Theatre, Chicago Theatre Company, Black Ensemble Theatre. Nationally, his plays have been produced in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Buffalo, Louisville, and New Orleans. He is a three time recipient of the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for Playwriting, a two time winner of the National Play Award sponsored by Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City (1995 and 2000), recipient of the 2000 Festival Of Emerging American Theatre (FEAT) National Playwriting Award, winner of the 1998 Theodore Ward Playwriting Award, the 2000 recipient of the Donahue-Tremaine Trust Award for excellence in playwriting, co-winner of the first annual David Ofner Prize (2000), the 1998 Edgar Award for Best Play from Mystery Writers Of America, and the winner of the 1993 Mixed Blood Versus America National Playwriting Contest.

  • Ilesa Duncan (Director/Co-adaptor)

    Ilesa became Lifeline’s Artistic Director and joined the ensemble in January 2019, where she directed Neverwhere (Jeff Recommended 2018), and Blue Shadow (KidSeries). A producer, director, writer, educator and theater-maker, Ilesa is an avid collaborator on new work. Other directing credits include Eclipsed (Jeff Recommended), Shakin’ The Mess Outta Misery (Jeff Nominated), Rutherford’s Travels (Jeff Nominated, co-adapter), The Green Book, For Her as a Piano, and Blacula: Young, Black & Undead at Pegasus Theatre; Broken Fences at 16th Street Theater; The Nativity (Congo Square; Jeff nominated); and the Jeff Award-winning Jar the Floor at ETA Creative Arts. Ilesa has also worked with The Goodman, Writers Theatre, Victory Gardens, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, Stage Left, and Chicago Dramatists, as well as Contemporary American Theatre Company (Ohio), The Alliance Theatre (Atlanta), Arena Stage (Washington DC), and Lincoln Center Theater (New York). As an educator, Ilesa has led youth development and arts education programs in Chicago for over thirteen years. She is a past awardee of an NEA/TCG Directing fellowship and a 3Arts Ragdale Fellowship. She is member of the Lincoln Center Theatre Director’s Lab and the Chicago Director’s Lab, and is an associate artist with Chicago Dramatists (where she previously served as education and community engagement director).

  • Becky Bishop (Stage Manager)

    Becky is frequently found at Lifeline Theatre, where she previously stage managed Frankenstein, Neverwhere [2018], Miss Holmes, Miss Buncle’s Book, Jane Eyre, Monstrous Regiment, and The City & The City. She most recently managed the Plagiarist’s Choose-You-Own Adventure play Season Pass: Deaux Over. Other productions in Chicago include: Some Like it Red (The Plagiarists); Prowess (Jackalope); The Dead Prince, The Half Brothers Mendelssohn, Funeral Wedding: The Alvin Play (Strange Tree); Robber Bridegroom, Letters Home, and Stage Door (Griffin Theatre). Additional productions have been with Steep, Caffeine Theatre, and The Gift. She has been a non-equity stage manager in Chicago since 2006.

  • Barry Bennett (Sound Designer)

    Barry is pleased as punch to return to Lifeline after composing music and sound designing last season’s, Frankenstein.  He is a Jeff nominated maker of theatrical music and sound with over 40 world premieres, a multitude of albums under his own name, and as a band leader with the seminal trance outfit MiLkBabY and the art rock group he currently leads, GRAPE JUICE PLUS. Other companies he has worked include: The Goodman, Victory Gardens, Chicago Dramatists (former associate artist), Writers’ Theatre, The Aardvark, Steppenwolf, The Art Institute, Emerald City, National Pastime, Cindy Brandle Dance Company, PROP THTR, Chicago Moving Company (former composer in residence), and others. He is an artistic associate and resident composer for 16th Street Theater, Winifred Haun & Dancers, and the director of Impending Behavior Orchestra. barrybennettsounds.com

  • Kyle Bricker (Asst. Stage Manager)

    Kyle is excited to be back at Lifeline. Previous Lifeline credits include: Sylvester and The Man Who Was Thursday. Other Chicago credits include: Girl Found (Idle Muse) and Nightmares and Nightcaps (Black Button Eyes). Kyle is a proud alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

  • Simean "Sim" Carpenter (Co-Lighting Designer)

    Sim is a young African American lighting & stage designer originally from Baltimore. He has been based in Chicago designing theatre, dance and concerts for nearly 5 years. He has had a passion for creative design since the age of 13.  Design credits include: Eurydice, Dutch Masters, Hannah & Martin, Hoodoo Love, A Darker Mine: Installation, Xavier Omar World Tour. simcarpenter.com

  • Paul Deziel (Co-Projections Designer)

    Paul practices projection design out of Chicago and Washington D.C. Selected credits include: P.Y.G. or the Mis-edumacation of Dorian Belle (Jackalope Theatre), Crystal Creek Motel (Flying V Theatre), X and Tilikum (Sideshow Theatre Company), The Color Purple (Drury Lane Theatre), Photograph 51 (Court Theatre), The Vagrant Trilogy (Mosaic Theatre Company), United Flight 232 (The House Theatre of Chicago), and Twisted Melodies (Congo Square Theatre). Paul holds an MFA in Projection & Multimedia Design from the University of Maryland, is an artistic affiliate with American Blues Theater, and the recipient of a Joseph Jefferson Award for Projection Design.  Pauldeziel.com

  • Alan Donahue (Scenic/Properties Designer)

    Alan adds to his nautical resume having previously designed the Lifeline productions of Treasure Island (2009) and Around the World in 80 Days (2002). Other seaboard designs include Rupert’s Swashbuckling Adventure (2019) at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo; Anything Goes (1992) at the Drury Lane South;  and Transit! (1983), a Panama Canal oil tanker musical —I kid you not!—at Texas A&M University. He designed Whose Body?, which was definitely landlocked, earlier this season.

  • Alex J. Gendal (Co-Projections Designer)

    Alex is thrilled to be part of Lifeline Theatre. He is a Chicago based Projection Designer and Creative Technologist. He specializes in Interactive Media, and some of his recent work includes It’s Your Funeral (Laboratory Theatre), Eugene Onegin (McCullough Theatre), SHOULDERS (B. Iden Payne Theatre), Anon(ymous) (Oscar G. Brockett Theatre), The Laramie Project (Fisher Theatre), and Belly Dance Masters (Double Tree Hilton, Orlando, FL). He recently completed Graduate School at the University of Texas at Austin, earning his Masters of Fine Arts in Integrated Media for Live Performance. alexjgendal.com

  • Christian Helem (Asst. Director)

    Christian is a teaching artist, director, actor and playwright. He currently teaches for Chi-Arts H.S. in the Musical Theatre concentration and the August Wilson Monologue Competition. He has a passion for directing musicals and other imaginative stories. His directing credits are 21 Chump Street: the Musical (Counter Collective), The Glass Menagerie (UIC Theatre) and the original docu-drama Anne Zimerman ProjectHis acting work includes: florissant and canfield, Passing Strangeand The Last Days of Judas IscariotHe works at the League of Chicago Theatres as an Administration Assistant.

  • Elise Kauzlaric (Dialect Coach)

    Elise has been a member of Lifeline’s artistic ensemble since 2005 and has coached numerous productions (The Killer Angels, The Moonstone, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Mark of Zorro, The Piano Tuner, et al). She has also coached for Steppenwolf, Marriott Theatre, TimeLine, Irish Theatre of Chicago, Griffin Theatre, the Hypocrites and others. Twice nominated for Non-Equity Jeff Awards for her dialect work (Busman’s Honeymoon at Lifeline and Punk Rock at Griffin), she also directs and acts around town and has received NE Jeff nominations for her direction of Northanger Abbey and Mariette in Ecstasy (Lifeline) as well as a Supporting Actress nomination for her work in On the Shore of the Wide World (Griffin). Elise also teaches at CCPA at Roosevelt University.

  • Caitlin McLeod (Asst. Costume Designer)

    Caitlin is thrilled to collaborate with Lifeline again. She is a costume and scenic designer, puppet enthusiast, and traveler. Other Lifeline shows include: Bunny’s Book Club; Whose Body?; and The Man Who Was Thursday.
    Most recent other credits include: Mlima’s Tale (Griffin Theatre); Stick Fly (Writers Theatre); The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show (Chicago Children’s Theatre); The Walls of Harrow HouseThe Stranger and The Shadow (Rough House); The River (Boho Theatre); The Ballad of Romeo and Juliet (American Myth Center, NC); American Jornalero (Teatro Vista); Seussical (Drury Lane); and The Great God Pan (Chicago Fringe Opera). She also is a co-founder of the Chicago based costume crafts business Craftiga. She earned her MFA at Northwestern University. CaitlinMcLeodDesign.com
  • Jocelyn Prince (Script Supervisor)

    Jocelyn is thrilled to be working with Lifeline for the first time. Other dramaturgy credits include Court Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Writers’ Theatre, Juilliard School of Drama, Lookingglass Theatre, and eta Creative Arts Foundation. Jocelyn has worked on the artistic staff of The Public Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre and was a co-founding artistic director for The New Black Fest. She teaches theater and performance studies at Northwestern University. Jocelyn is an alumna of Bradley University (BA) and Northwestern University (MA). Visit jocelynprince.com.

  • R&D Choreography [Victor Bayona and Richard Gilbert] (Violence Design)

    R&D Choreography is Victor Bayona (he/him) and Rick Gilbert (he/him). We are as proud as punch to be back at Lifeline for our 16th show here! R&D was founded in 1997 for the purpose of improving the power and effectiveness of Chicago area theatre through the art of violence design – choreographing better fights for better shows!  We have designed violence and/or intimacy for over three hundred productions and films. Our work has been seen at dozens of Chicago area theatres, including 16th Street, ATC, Chimera, Factory, Goodman, Haven, Lookingglass, Metropolis, Oak Park Festival, Pride Films and Plays, The Paramount, Piven, Steep, Strawdog, and Theo Ubique.

  • Maren Robinson (Dramaturg)

    Maren is pleased to be working with Ilesa Duncan again after having been dramaturg for both productions of Neverwhere.   As an ensemble member, she has also served as dramaturg at for Emma, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, The Moonstone, Hunger, The Woman in White, and Miss Holmes. She also has worked in Chicago with Court, Strawdog, Eclipse, Caffeine, Greasy Joan and Camenae theaters. Maren is also a company member and resident dramaturg at TimeLine Theatre where she has been dramaturg for over thirty plays.  She holds a MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago. She is an instructor at The Theatre School at DePaul and Associate Director of the Master of Arts Program in Humanities at the University of Chicago. Maren is the Chicago VP of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.

  • K.T. Shivak (Puppet Designer)

  • Nicole Clark-Springer (Choreographer)

    Nicole is currently the newly appointed Artistic Director for Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. She began formal training under the guidance of Claudette Soltis (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Joliet Ballet Society) and the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre. She has set ballets on Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, Collage Dance Collective (Memphis, Tennessee), and Flatfoot Dance Company (South Africa), as well as toured Turkey, South Africa, and Bulgaria; worked with Congo Square, Black Ensemble Theater, and Pegasus Theater; and choreographed the opening number for the nationally syndicated Steve Harvey Show-Halloween Celebration. She teaches and choreographs throughout the country and has been on faculty as an Adjunct Professor with Chicago State University, Western Kentucky University, and, currently, Northwestern University.

  • Scott Tobin (Co-Lighting Designer)

    A fourth year lighting design student at The Theatre School at DePaul, Scott’s previous credits include: the Michigan Shakespeare Festival (Master Electrician), NFL Hall of Fame Enshrinement Weekend (Intern), and various designs for The Theatre School, including: One Flea Spare, The Witness, Honey Girls, Our Lady Of Kibeho, and Brooklyn Bridge. Scott was also the recipient of the 2019 Michael Merritt Academic Award for Collaborative Design. For more information, visit ScottTobinDesign.com.

  • Shawn Wallace (Composer/Music Director)

    Shawn is excited to make his Lifeline Theatre debut with Middle Passage! Arrangement and composition for theatre include: Ifa Bayeza’s Amistad Voices (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), Kid Zero (Chicago Center for Performing Arts), and Charleston Olio (National Black Theatre Festival), Shepsu Aakhu’s Warm on the Cooling Board (MPAACT 2014) and Carla Stillwell’s Lawd the CVS is Burning…a Gospel Musical Stage Play (MPACT 2015), When Good Broccoli Goes Bad (MPAACT), Rutherford’s Travels (Pegasus Theatre Fall 2016) and Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery (Pegasus Theatre Fall 2017).  A native of Chicago’s Beverly/Morgan Park neighborhood and proud alum of Morgan Park High School, Shawn studied Music Theory and Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is currently serving as Music Director for The Emmaus Center and as a Music Director and Composer for Storycatchers Theatre.

  • Anna Wooden (Costume Designer)

    Anna is excited to return to Lifeline. Recent theatre credits include: The Man Who Was Thursday (Jeff Nom) and Whose Body? (Lifeline), Footloose (Marriott), Pinocchio (The House), Second Skin (Wildclaw), Strange Heart Beating and Another Jungle (Cloudgate Theatre), and The Walls of Harrow House (Rough House). Film credits include: First Dance (Project Blue Light), The Shepherd (Vertical Church), and costume coordinator on the pilot of Showtime’s The Chi. She is co-founder of the crafts company Craftiga Ltd and an artistic associate of Cloudgate Theatre Company. She is adjunct faculty at DePaul University, and received her MFA from Northwestern University.  annawoodendesign.com

Tickets, https://boxoffice.diamondticketing.com/lifelinetheatre/events/Middle,

From the Chicago Tribune
‘Middle Passage’ at Lifeline Theatre is both a swashbuckling adventure and a powerful indictment of slavery
February 28, 2020
By Chris Jones
When Charles R. Johnson wrote the novel “Middle Passage,” which won the National Book Award in 1990 for the Evanston-born writer, he immersed himself in the musings of nautical adventurers: Herman Melville, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, even the mythology of Sinbad the Sailor.

But there is an important difference between those antecedents and Johnson’s story of the 1830 adventures of Rutherford Calhoun, a cocksure young citizen of Illinois who plays around on the seafront of New Orleans and then stows away on a ship, the Republic, mostly to avoid his debtors and a potential marriage to a schoolteacher about whom he is less than enthusiastic.

Callhoun is African-American, a freed slave. The Republic, he comes to discover, is a slave ship bound for West Africa. Its human quarry is to be the Allmuseri, a fearsome tribe in Johnson’s telling, known for their longevity, height, lack of fingerprints and, it is rumored, for the second brain that occupies the base of their spines.

Callhoun does not jump ship at the very idea but signs on anyway. He is to find out that the Allmuseri are not the only object of the voyage.

And thus Johnson tells a swashbuckling story rich with all kinds of themes, most of which explicate the inherent contradictions and complexities within American history and culture. The central figure is, of course, Rutherford, an initially invisible man who finds himself set adrift in a pool of chaos and must find his own moral center.

Lifeline Theatre is famous for its literary adventure shows that take its Rogers Park audience off on all manner of improbable voyages, the small stage filling with masts, actors being blown about in the wind, and the speakers crackling with the wind and the rain. As adapted for the stage by David Barr III and Ilesa Duncan, “Middle Passage” is not an original production; it was previously staged as “Rutherford’s Travels” by Duncan, now the artistic director of Lifeline, at the Pegasus Players in 2016. In her Tribune review, critic Kerry Reid called that first staging of the show “a ripping yarn, a thrilling bildungsroman and rich in comic detail.”

I’ll second all of that and add that it is unusual, now, to experience those qualities alongside this particular theme. But although “Middle Passage” is an indictment of the slave trade, racism and self-serving complicity by those who should have known better, Johnson (and Barr) still want to tell a swashbuckling and often funny story. If that sounds a mismatch of styles, the answer is that “Middle Passage” has many styles, depending on which moment you are watching, and that one of the key aims and achievements here, both by Johnson and Barr, is to focus not just on how the captured Africans were treated, but their elite stature, their majesty and their awe-inspiring intelligence. In Johnson’s imagination, the Allmuseri were close to immortal, and thus symbols of hope in the face of repression.

Certainly, there are physical limitations and also subtler pieces of theater in town, although Alan Donahue’s set certainly takes you out to sea and back again. There’s a deftly toned lead performance from the young actor Michael Morrow, evoking part a cipher and, maybe, an eventual man who finally knows himself. Add in a full-throated theatrical turn from Patrick Blashill as Captain Falcon, and Bryan Carter as one of big characters on the quay and you’re in the company of skilled storytellers in service of the explication of freedom. The show is great for anyone about 11 years old and up.


From Picture This Post
February 25, 2020
By Spence Warren
“The social wheel is oiled by debt.”
In 1830s Louisiana, cunning rogue and recently freed slave, Rutherford Calhoun (Michael Morrow) is forced into a choice between marriage, indentured servitude to gangsters and stowing away aboard a ship bound for the high seas. His choice sends us on a decidedly different sort of swashbuckling adventure.

Lifeline Theatre Officiates A Marriage of Tradition and Innovation
Fog hangs in the air above a massive, detailed model of a sailing ship made of aged wood, metal and ropes which will serve as the multi-functional set while projections of an animated seascape illuminate the floor and back wall. The room temperature is low and – perhaps because the staff has anticipated the potential discomfort of guests – the back of each chair is draped with a blanket.

“Your judgement of character is worse than your cookin’!”
Morrow’s Calhoun, alternates between dialogue with other characters in the scene and direct address to the audience throughout the play. Every other actor in this crackerjack ensemble plays two or more roles. You too might find intriguing story insights contained within the choices of who plays who else in this tale of subjugation, lust, coming-of-age, betrayal, and redemption in the antebellum south.

A Tremendous Feat of Coordination at Every Level
Songs are sung a capella from behind the audience as well as behind and beneath the set, creating an organic kind of surround-sound. Many components of the set are functional; sails unfurl while characters tie off ropes and swing from the boom. Props and costumes are replete with minute detail. You too might find the fights and various other stunts to be visceral and acrobatic.

“Useful Boots”
It is the opinion of this particular reviewer that on the whole, despite a rather abrupt and melodramatic conclusion, MIDDLE PASSAGE is a masterfully executed, spellbinding piece of theatre that is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for all audiences, particularly those who enjoy their high adventure with a social conscience.


From Chicago Theatre Review
Making History Come Alive
February 25, 2020
By Colin Douglas
Winning the 1990 National Book Award for Fiction, Charles R. Johnson’s novel is a sprawling two-and-a-half hour saga about a freed, young African-American man who comes to understand firsthand the horrors of the slave trade. Co-adapted for Lifeline Theatre by Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III, this ocean adventure is a tale of self-discovery and growth, detailing a young African-American’s journey toward maturity.

After leaving his native Illinois, cocky Rutherford Calhoun heads to New Orleans, where he intends to sow his wild oats in the decadence of the Big Easy. After arriving, he meets an enchanting, but prim and proper, young woman named Isadora Bailey. Calhoun charms the young lady, but Miss Bailey isn’t easily wooed by Rutherford’s sweet talk. She wants a commitment, so Isadora tries to blackmail Calhoun into marrying her if she’ll pay off his debts. To avoid the confinements of marriage, Rutherford stows aboard a sailing ship. What he doesn’t realize is that the Republic is a ship bound for the African coast on its mission to capture dozens of men, women and children who’ll be sold into slavery.

Rutherford befriends and becomes an assistant to the ship’s affable, heavy-drinking cook, Josiah Squibb. He also comes to like and respect the Republic’s moral First Mate, Peter Cringle. But, like the rest of the crew, Calhoun fears the ship’s tyrannical captain, Ebenezer Falcon, despite being taken into the brutal autocrat’s confidence and becoming his eyes and ears above deck. Johnson’s story takes the audience on a complicated, episodic and doomed voyage to the west coast of Africa, and beyond.

Along the way, Rutherford must overcome a number of challenges. Calhoun learns to balance an edgy relationship with the lunatic ship captain with a dissenting crew who continually threaten to mutiny. He figures out ways to crush all the fear and hatred thrust upon him by the Allmuseri captives, chained below deck. He attempts to survive a violent storm at sea that kills his most of his shipmates and destroys the Republic. Rutherford is rescued by another ship and, upon returning to New Orleans, he finds Isadora and his creditor, named Papa Zeringue. Ultimately, following months of danger, Calhoun has learned empathy, compassion for his fellow man and the importance of settling down to a wife and family. Ultimately, Rutherford Calhoun’s story ends happily.

This theatrical adaptation is one of Lifeline Theatre’s more involved, complicated dramas. Kudos to director Ilesa Duncan for keeping all of her ducks in a row and helping the audience to navigate this difficult, labyrinthine tale of the high seas. Johnson’s story is captivating and unique, especially with its African-American hero. The play presents a seldom-seen, sometimes misunderstood dark chapter of our history. The production is beautifully enhanced by a host of gifted, unseen talent. This includes a magnificent, awesomely impressive scenic design, by Alan Donahue; a palette of ever-changing, mood-enhancing lighting, contributed by Simean “Sim” Carpenter and Scott Tobin; sound and music designs by Barry Bennett and Shawn Wallace, respectively; and some incredible, moving projections, that bring the rolling waves and furious storm into this intimate venue, designed by Paul Deziel and Alex J. Gendal. Anna Wooden’s authentic period costumes put the icing on the cake. This is an incredible technical achievement for this literary-inspired theatre company.

In addition, the eleven talented, highly versatile actors who bring this story to life are some of the hardest-working performers around. As Rutherford Calhoun, good-looking and charismatic actor Michael Morrow is terrific. Seldom if ever leaving the stage, Mr. Morrow is the heart and soul of this epic story. He easily takes the audience along with him on his journey to self-discovery and personal growth, and the audience comes to identify with Calhoun’s adventurous odyssey toward enlightenment.

Morrow is ably aided by a cast of excellent supporting actors. Christopher Hainsworth is funny and touching as Josiah Squibb; the always impressive Andres Enriquez brings sobriety, class and stature to his portrayal of First Mate, Peter Cringle; Patrick Blashill is forceful and fearsome, as Captain Falcon. David Stobbe, as McGaffin, lends his combat skills to the action and a powerful singing voice to the melodic sea shanties that help create atmosphere; Shelby Lynn Bias makes a sweetly sophisticated Isadora Bailey; Jill Oliver displays her strength and versatility playing cabin boy, Tommy; Bryan Carter is a quiet source of ominous strenth, as Papa Zeringue; LaQuin Groves makes a threatening, towering giant of Santos; Hunter Bryant is intelligent and wonderfully commanding, as Jackson; and Demetra Dee makes and innocent and touching little Baleka. All of the actors double and triple as the townspeople, the ship’s crew and/or the African captives, making this cast all that more impressive.

This noteworthy, award-winning historical novel of the sea is a perfect offering for this company, especially during Black History Month. But this intricate tale of a young man’s journey toward maturity requires careful attention and listening by its audience. Lifeline Theatre’s brilliant cast and crew, under the tight direction of Ilesa Duncan, work hard to make history come alive, bringing this unbelievable adventure to the stage. For the smart theatergoer, however, the long voyage is definitely worthwhile.


From Windy City Times
March 1, 2020
By Jonathon Abarbanel
Set in 1830, this classic picaresque tale concerns self-absorbed young Rutherford Calhoun, a Free Man of Color who is better educated than most men (black or white) of the era. Nonetheless, he chooses to be a petty thief and rake, especially when he travels to New Orleans to make his fortune. When his debts catch up with him, his only way out is unwanted marriage to wealthy Isadora (Shelby Lynn Bias). Instead, he stows away on a ship, the Republic, and is pressed into the crew, quickly learning it’s an illegal slaver bound for Africa.

Soon enough, Rutherford faces true perils through which he matures into a worthy human being. After picking up human cargo on the Guinea coast, and surviving a storm that cripples the Republic, Rutherford must thread his way between a crew mutiny, a slave rebellion and his promise to spy for ship Captain Falcon, who has befriended him for self-serving reasons. To reveal more would spoil things, except there’s something besides slaves below decks: there’s a mystical African god or creature that’s key to Rutherford’s spiritual awakening. Also, the ship’s ironic name is central to the tale, embodying Rutherford’s identity struggle long before we had a term for being both African and American.

It’s an engaging show, and why not? Lifeline Theatre has presented page-to-stage adaptations for nearly 40 years, so they have the narrative techniques and story-telling tricks down pat. Also, the cast features veteran Lifeline Ensemble members in key roles—Patrick Blashill as Falcon, Andres Enriquez as First Mate Cringle & Christopher Hainsworth as Squibb the cook—and they bring experience and versatility to the production.

As Rutherford Calhoun, Michael Morrow makes a very good impression in his Lifeline debut and really centers the show, which has been fluidly staged by Lifeline artistic director Ilesa Duncan. The production’s excellent design elements also add a great deal: scenic (Alan Donahue), costumes (Anna Wooden), lighting (Simean Carpenter, Scott Tobin) and projections (Paul Deziel, Alex. J. Gendal).

Middle Passage is adapted by Duncan and David Barr III from the award-winning 1990 novel by Charles Johnson. Their version was staged previously at Congo Square Theatre, notwithstanding which it still could use some refinements. First, Capt. Falcon is not depicted as villainous or cruel—especially compared to other 19th-century literary sea captains—so what inspires the crew mutiny? The real villain is Papa Zeringue, the black New Orleans criminal mastermind who partners in the illegal slave trade. He’s given almost comic treatment here, which doesn’t feel right. Also, Rutherford’s interaction with the mystical thing in the hold, which triggers his crucial spirit journey, could be longer and more intense. These refinements would make this worthy adventure even better.


From Buzznews.net
February 28, 2020
By Bill Esler
Set in 1830, Lifeline Theatre’s Middle Passage, beautifully directed by Ilesa Duncan, is an exciting show: absolutely entertaining, well-produced and well-acted.

And yet, entertaining as it is, Middle Passage also recounts the horrific enslavement and transport of Africa’s Allmuseri people, their inhumane treatment by a cruel ship’s captain, and the desecration of their sacred possessions. How do these opposites co-exist in one play? Look to the source.

Based on the bestseller by Charles Johnson (adapted by David Barr III and the director), Middle Passage the book is a fictional first-person narrative by a 20-year-old freed slave, Rutherford Calhoun (Michael Morrow), who makes his way from Southern Illinois to New Orleans to sow his wild oats.

“She’s a town with almost religious pursuit of sin,” Calhoun says of New Orleans, in an aside to the audience.

Johnson gives us a picaresque novel, with a wandering young man, like other 19th century literary characters (think Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon). Both the book and the play recount from the first-person point of view, Calhoun’s experiences – good and bad passing before his eyes – during his adventures. So, as in life, the good and the bad, the lighthearted moments and the tragic, co-exist.

Like Barry Lyndon, Rutherford Calhoun is on the make in New Orleans, and without means – courting young ladies, but also running up debts. This comes to the notice of Papa Zeringue (Bryan Carter), a Creole mob boss holding all Calhoun’s promissory notes. Papa Zeringue tells Calhoun he must pay, or he will be thrown into the deeps of the Mississippi.

Thankfully for Calhoun, he has flirted (chastely) with Isadora (Shelby Lynn Bias), a young black schoolteacher from Boston, whose family has been free for generations. Isadora has some savings, and unbeknownst to Calhoun, negotiates to pay his debts to Papa Zeringue, on one condition – Calhoun will be forced to marry her.

When he learns of the plan, Calhoun stows aboard the ship Republic. When it puts out to sea, he discovers it is a slaver, on its way to Africa to pick up human cargo.

And with that, the story opens to an exciting, rollicking seafaring tale with all the trappings- storms, cannon fire, mutiny, betrayals, slave rebellions. Calhoun is there for selfish reasons – “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women” – as one character puts it.

As an “everyman” character, we watch Calhoun avoid dirtying his hands in the fray, but eventually, he moves from aloof observer to responsible man, developing his moral compass through the trials.

The cast is uniformly good – really good – and most play multiple ensemble roles, as well as their principle character. Particularly notable performances were delivered by Patrick Blashill as Captain Falcon and Andres Enriquez as navigator Peter Cringle. Shelby Lynn Bias’s Isadora is both nicely written, and very well delivered – she is very 1830s Bostonian. Hunter Bryant (Calhoun’s brother Jackson), also, notably plays the role of a young slave learning English who bonds with Calhoun. Bryant launches convincingly into a somewhat lengthy delivery in an Allmuseri language.

Michael Morrow as Rutherford Calhoun carries the weight of the play on his shoulders, also making asides to the audience about the action or his feelings. Opening night, Morrow seemed a little uncertain in the beginning moments – but eventually warmed and really did command the role.

The set (Alan Donohue) is a lovingly crafted sailing vessel with multiple decks, stowage, working winche, mast and beam – all integrated to the projection design (Paul Deziel and Alex J. Gendal) and sound design (Barry Bennett). With this we feel for all the world we are at sea, particularly during storms and battles. A puppet parrot was less compelling.

The play originated at Pegasus Players in 2016 under the title, Rutherford’s Travels. But this version seems very strongly rooted in African storytelling culture, which taps a type of magical realism, to my mind (like Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad). Its title is far more resonant today: Middle Passage, the slave shipping route that represents the crucible of emotional and spiritual transformation from free, cultured Africans to impoverished American slaves.


From BroadwayWorld Chicago
February 27, 2020
By Emily McClanathan
In Lifeline Theatre’s MIDDLE PASSAGE, the intimate Rogers Park venue transforms into the scene of a 19th century maritime epic. Artistic Director Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III adapt Charles Johnson’s award-winning 1990 novel for the stage, and Duncan directs. The sprawling tale follows a recently freed slave as he journeys from the gambling dens of New Orleans to the heart of the African slave trade and back again.

Michael Morrow stars as Rutherford Calhoun, a likable young rogue. Gaining his freedom upon his master’s death, he moves to New Orleans in 1830. With barely any money to begin with, Rutherford supports himself through petty theft and soon runs up gambling debts. After a flirtatious friendship with Isadora (Shelby Lynn Bias), a prim and proper teacher from Boston, Rutherford finds himself facing a forced marriage at the hands of his ruthless creditors. He escapes by stowing away on a vessel that turns out to be a slave ship, en route to pick up a “cargo” of captives from the Allmuseri tribe, a mysterious, fictional people from West Africa.

Rutherford encounters a vibrant cast of characters on his travels. These include cruel Captain Ebenezer Falcon (Patrick Blashill), kindly first mate Peter Cringle (Andrés Enriquez), the Allmuseri captives, and an ominous creature caged in the ship’s hold. With a crew mutiny and a slave revolt brewing, both sides try to enlist Rutherford’s aid. Meanwhile, Captain Falcon wants his services as a spy. This tense situation forms a dramatic backdrop for Rutherford’s coming-of-age story on the high seas.

With slavery as a central theme, the production doesn’t shy away from portraying its physical violence and psychological torment. The Allmuseri enter in chains, are inspected like animals on the auction block, and forced into infamously cramped quarters aboard ship. Beyond these obvious cruelties, we also witness the cultural suppression inflicted by the slave traders. Having grown up a slave, Rutherford envies the Allmuseri’s rich culture and history. In comparison, he feels that he has no past at all. And yet, even before they reach America, he observes a sad change in the Africans. In the hands of their captors, “they weren’t fully Allmuseri anymore.”

Composer and music director Shawn Wallace, working with Duncan as lyricist, plays an important role in developing the different cultures in this story. In the early New Orleans scenes, we hear the influences of African American spirituals and Creole folk music as the cast sing mostly a cappella, beating out their rhythms on improvised percussion instruments. On board ship, the ship’s crew carry off hearty sea shanties with gusto, showing their roots in the British Isles. In one memorable scene, the sailors’ jaunty tunes are juxtaposed with the haunting chants of the Allmuseri. Later, music becomes yet another tool of oppression when the Allmuseri are forced to dance a jig, “for exercise,” to the tune of a penny whistle.

As usual, set designer and Lifeline ensemble member Alan Donahue finds creative ways to make the most of the theater’s small stage. With the help of Paul Deziel and Alex J. Gendal’s projections, a single slanted platform with a mast becomes a ship. When a storm hits, Simean “Sim” Carpenter and Scott Tobin’s lighting and Barry Bennett’s sound design complement Nicole Clark-Springer’s choreography as the actors lurch across the deck.

Undoubtedly, MIDDLE PASSAGE is an ambitious novel to put on stage. With such an eventful narrative, several characters’ backstories feel underdeveloped or rushed in this adaptation. Still, Rutherford’s journey from boy to man is an impressive feat of storytelling, in large part because of its creative use of traditional adventure tropes to examine weighty issues of racism and slavery.


From The Fourth Walsh
Epic Journey to Self Discovery
February 29, 2020
By Katy Walsh
In 1830s New Orleans, a young black man is running from debt and an arranged marriage. He escapes by boat only to find out he is now a stowaway on a slave ship. Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III adapted Dr. Charles Johnson’s riveting tale of a man challenged with confronting his identity, integrity and community. Duncan and Barr create this epic journey to self discovery. Rutherford Calhoun (played by an impressive Michael Morrow) deals with a series of tribulations from internal and external forces. Rutherford must choose between the life he wants and the one he is living.

The show is part musical (Shawn Wallace Composer/Music Director), part adventure, part romance, part history lesson… it’s a lot of parts! And it’s longer than the publicized two hours. Duncan, co-adapter and director, could have tightened the journey and the experience with some editing. Still, her ensemble is terrific. The charismatic Morrow charms everyone, the proper Shelby Lynn Bias, the crusty Patrick Blashill, the earnest Andrés Enriquez, and basically the entire audience. Morrow tirelessly transforms from amicable scoundrel to empathetic bystander to worldly savant. His metamorphosis is the heart and soul of this voyage.

Morrow is joined by a boat-load of characters aiding the robust storytelling. Many of the ensemble play multiple characters with distinction. A noteworthy Jill Oliver morphs between two sailors, one adorably cute and the other super creepy. David Stobbe is imposing as a malicious sailor and then almost cherubic-like as a chorus singer. Both Bryan Carter and LaQuin Groves are threatening thugs on land and terrified slaves by sea. And bringing the humor, the formidable Christopher Hainsworth (Josiah Squibb) uses his signature comedy timing and deadpan delivery to continually zing the one liners.

The design team (Alan Donahue – scenic, Barry Bennett – sound, Simean Carpenter – lighting, Paul Deziel and Alex J. Gendal – projections, Anna Wooden – costumes, R&D Choreography – violence) transport the audience to the high seas. Donahue’s wooden vessel is center stage rigged with mast and sails. Deziel and Gendal’s projections of the lulling waves are visible port side. The creativity is especially notable during squalls. The ensemble, the projections and the boom are moving in orchestrated chaos. Special nod out to Bennett’s sound design that startled me every time a turbulent storm was brewing.

Set sail for MIDDLE PASSAGE!  The timely quest takes us on a thought-provoking ride to understanding.


From Third Coast Review
National Book Award-Winner Middle Passage Adrift On Stage
March 1, 2020
By Karin McKie
Lifeline Theatre presents Dr. Charles Johnson’s 1990 National Book Award winner Middle Passage, directed by Ilesa Duncan, who co-adapted with David Barr III. The result struggles from the page to the stage. Self-described rogue, “social parasite” and freeman Rutherford Calhoun (Michael Morrow) arrives in New Orleans from southern Illinois in 1829, where he enjoys making a living as a pickpocket and petty thief.

As the title suggests, the story is somewhat about the horrific transatlantic slave trade, but also about a man running out on his debts, and a woman. Calhoun flees from “marriage hungry” Boston-born schoolteacher Isadora Bailey (Shelby Lynn Bias) by stowing away on the Republic, captained by Falcon (Patrick Blashill), alongside a motley crew of pirate-y stereotypes and a puppet parrot. An on-the-nose departure declaration says, “No Christian law holds water once you put to sea.”

After they are under way, Calhoun realizes the “three-masted bark” is a slaver that will capture and transport five “sorcerer” members of the Allmuseri tribe (along with an additional cargo of magic realism). In his search to understand freedom, Calhoun switches alliances among the crew, the captain and the enslaved, each group vying to divide and conquer. Calhoun is not Black enough nor white enough to fully fit into any side. One of the songs that serves as scene transitions is the chanting of “choose, choose, choose.”

The strange bedfellows end up adrift between Africa and America, literally and metaphorically, stuck in a Sargasso Sea-like liminal space searching for home, as the un-seaworthy ship (of state?), literally and metaphorically, falls apart, fulfilling the foreshadowing “she will not be the same ship that left New Orleans.” The Calhoun character’s constant self-narration makes the play’s emotional flow as choppy as the sea swells, and his ever-shifting promises make him unsympathetic.

Lifeline and set designer Alan Donahue accomplish their usual admirable job of packing a dynamic set into a small space, the angled wooden ship planks surrounded by effective water projections and lights by Simean Carpenter. Yet the result doesn’t match the weight of the title or the brief scene of humans in chains. What should have been massive emotional stakes becomes a tempest in a teapot.


From The Reader
Middle Passage is part voyage of the damned, part picaresque
March 3, 2020
By Kerry Reid

Lighting out for the territory, as Huck Finn put it, may be central to the American dream of liberty, but it’s also a false narrative of freedom. We see that clearly in Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III’s Middle Passage, adapted from Charles Johnson’s 1990 National Book Award-winning novel, which hit the boards with Pegasus a few years ago under the title Rutherford’s Travels. It’s now back under the original moniker at Lifeline under Duncan’s direction.

Rutherford Calhoun (Michael Morrow), a freed slave from Illinois in 1829, follows his licentious bliss to New Orleans, where he meets a governess, Isadora (Shelby Lynn Bias) who wants to make an honest man out of him. Escaping both Isadora and his debts lands him on a ship, the symbolically named Republic, bound for Africa to pick up a cargo of human beings.

What transpires is a battle for Rutherford’s soul and identity. Is he one with the white crew, who plot to take control of the ship? Does race, if not tribal affiliation, require him to help the Allmuseri, the group of captured Africans planning their own revolt? Or should he play both sides against the middle and serve as spy to Patrick Blashill’s Captain Falcon?

A mix of the historic and the swashbuckling with a scosh of magical realism, this production captures what is most arresting about Johnson’s original story. Morrow is splendid as the callow Rutherford forced to grow up and (in one mystical segment) confront literal ghosts of his past. If he sometimes seems like a cipher in the mix of larger-than-life characters surrounding him, that too is a reflection of how a Black man must negotiate what to reveal and what to hide about himself for the sake of his life and liberty.


From the Northwest Herald
‘Middle Passage’ offers gripping ocean adventure at Lifeline Theatre
March 8, 2020
By Rick Copper

“Middle Passage” is a play revolving around a young man, Rutherford Calhoun, living on the sly as a petty thief and conman in New Orleans in 1830. A recently freed slave, Calhoun’s overwhelming self-confidence puts him into severe debt, which gets him into just enough hot water that he’s forced into a marriage he feels he does not want.

To get out of his marriage, Calhoun runs away, stowing away on a ship. Unbeknownst to him, it’s a slave ship. Here we find the crux of “Middle Passage,” as our swaggering protagonist soon finds himself in a delicate, almost overwhelming triangle – appeasing the captain, appeasing the crew that hates the captain and helping the slaves with whom he feels kinship.

Calhoun’s role is a huge one. Actor Michael Morrow runs with it as we watch his character mature from a swaggering man-child to a confident adult.

The crew are more pirates than they are sailors. Running a slave ship, they know exactly what they’re doing and only care about themselves – for the most part. The role of Josiah Squibb, who befriends Rutherford, is a great one, as he is the only pirate who displays any empathy. Christopher Hainsworth plays a great Squibb.

Captain Falcon is a scallywag for certain. He doesn’t give a parrot’s caw about anyone but himself. Actor Patrick Blashill made sure he took that role and squeezed it dry until every audience member held no empathy for his situation.

The rest of the cast had worthy performances, but I want to take note of two who really shined: LaQuin Groves as Santos and Demetra Dee as Baleka.

The set is magnificent, doubling as both a New Orleans pier and a listing ship, complete with hold. The pier/ship is wide, and there is plenty of room upstage for a series of well-choreographed fight scenes. These scenes were a delight to behold, and it’s obvious the entire cast worked very hard to get these down. A round of applause goes to both scenic designer Alan Donahue and choreographer Nicole Clark Springer.

Adding to the whole aura of being on the sea and the intense nature of the story is great work on the lighting and sound. There were a few moments during the storm scenes where I caught myself gripping my chair. A standing ovation to Simean Carpenter and Barry Bennett for their efforts.

My only beef with the play is the mysterious godlike creature “captured” and put on board the ship in the hold next to the slaves. If the reason it was on the ship was to wreak havoc, that’s fine, but it should’ve been more pronounced in dialogue than in action. In my opinion, this is akin to the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction” – some things are better left a mystery to be solved within an audience member’s head.

As it is, “Middle Passage” has a very deep story with a lot of arcs. When you base a play on a novel – as this one is based on a book written by Dr. Charles Johnson – it’s often difficult to condense. However, if director/co-adaptor Ilesa Duncan took this entire part out, it would not be missed.

“Middle Passage” is playing at the Lifeline Theatre in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood until April 5. Lifeline is an intimate theater tucked into Glenwood Avenue right by the CTA Red Line/Purple express. On occasion, you can hear the train clickety-clacking by, but it does not hamper the performance whatsoever. In parts of it, it’s kind of an addition.

Because of the performances, stage, sound, lighting and fight choreography, it’s certainly worth the drive. Street parking is tight, but the theater has a shuttle system to ease that problem. Get there early enough to take advantage of it.