“I always believed that we were doing art with a purpose, not art for art’s sake,” says Director Runako Jahi, “I believe that art should support humanity in some way.”
This is what he is trying to accomplish with “This Far By Faith,” a gospel musical that he re-opened last week at the South Side’s eta Creative Arts Foundation.
This is the musical’s fourth run, and features new dance routines choreographed by Rueben Echoles. Jahi, eta’s Black Theater Alliance Award-winning Artistic Director, has staged the show before sold-out audiences at eta three times since it premiered there in 1997. “It’s a crowd pleaser,” he said, “It’s a wonderful musical, it’s a morality tale.”
According to the theater, the play tells “the story of a progressive minister’s conflicts with the congregation he pastors and morality struggles with his prodigal blues-singing son.”
“It touches on some problems among the African-American community, but from talking to some white friends, I think that some of them are very universal,” said the playwright, eta dramatic coach and recently retired Northeastern Illinois University instructor Marylene Whitehead.
Jahi sees the play, focused on a bold minister’s tenuous career and collapsing family, as “about values, and ambition, and not being gobbled up by ambition. It’s also about keeping the family connected and keeping your values clear.”
He said that he chose the script because it was “spiritually relevant in the most universal sense of the word spiritual.”
The playwright denied any great ambition for the play. “I didn’t set out to write this story, but it just ignited people,” she claims, and affirmed that her inspiration came “from a higher source.” “Everyone says this sort of thing about their own play, but it seems like there are issues in life and with raising children that seem to resonate with all people, and the music is just hypnotic.”
The late Rufus Hill’s score is a mix of conventional musical fare, gospel and upbeat jazz. The star track, “No Time to Give Up,” won the Black Theater Alliance Award for best original song.
Jahi was introduced to eta when he was “17 going on 18” by Chicago playwright, musician and activist Oscar Brown, Jr. Jahi took acting classes for some time, and first performed in “El Hajj Malik,” a dramatization of the life of Malcom X.
According to his website, he has since acted and taught extensively and directed over a dozen plays for eta, including “Eyes” in 2004, Mari Evans’s stage adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” He has won numerous high awards within the black theater world, including multiple Black Theater Alliance Awards for set design and direction. He has also taught several actors that have gone on to successful film and television careers.
Whitehead has written several other family-oriented plays, and continues to write for the stage in her spare time. She said, “I’m always writing, and I’ve worked full time all my life. It’s a passion I’ve developed into a fine craft.” As well as teaching, she is the founder of the Northeastern Illinois University Black Heritage Gospel Choir, and worked closely with Hill on the score for “This Far By Faith.”
eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. February 7-March 30. Thursday-Saturday 8pm, Sunday 3pm and 7pm. Students $15, General Admission $30. www.etacreativearts.org