With a great ensemble, physicality, interactivity, laughs, and songs, “Thaddeus and Slocum” bring new appreciation to vaudeville while also exposing its ugly underbelly.
Taking place in Chicago in 1908 audiences’ ears will perk up at the mention of familiar intersections and old theaters like The Majestic, currently the PrivateBank Theatre, and the Pekin Theatre. The vaudevillian team at the center of the production is Thaddeus and Slocum. The boys grew up together with Slocum’s father teaching them everything they know about song and dance and eventually teaming up to form a charming and talented team. As talented as they are Thaddeus and Slocum keep hitting a wall and because when you live in 1908 Chicago it’s not easy to be a mixed vaudeville team.
Remember this is a time when minstrel shows and blackface are popular. In this era there is no end in sight for the humiliation, harassment, and persecution of minorities. When The Majestic is the apex of Chicago theater, but they only allow one minority act a night it makes it really hard for an act like Thaddeus and Slocum to get off the streets and into the theater. Of course they can stick to the Levee District or play the Pekin but those routes don’t lead to the sort of stardom they are looking for. Then one day Slocum comes up with the idea of using blackface in their act because most performers using blackface were white, and they could play off Thaddeus being white and get into the Majestic.
The conflict lives in the growing divide of Thaddeus and Slocum as Slocum doesn’t truly understand the dangers and dignity-depriving actions he is asking of Thaddeus, and Thaddeus struggles with his morals and his need to survive. “I can’t be taking the kind of risks you take,” says Thaddeus during one argument. Add a mixed woman passing as white, interracial love, racist theater owners, and secrets and you have a powder keg ready to explode all over the powerful songs, acrobatic performances, and hilarious one liners. I never liked vaudeville until this production not only because I grew an appreciation for the hard work the performers put in, but I finally got the depth of character I’ve always felt was missing.
“Thaddeus and Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure” will be at the Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave., until Aug. 14. For tickets and more information visit lookingglasstheatre.org/event_page/thaddeus-and-slocum.