Three people stand in front of a grocery store window in this black-and-white photo. Two women flank a man. The woman on the left is holding a bag with the legend Econo-Art emblazoned on it.
The founders of Econo-Art Theatre Company in 1986: from left, Lynn Baber, Marc Silvia, and Barbara Reeder Credit: Amy Clark

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions,” observes Claudius in Hamlet. And for Chicago theater artists, the last two weeks of November were particularly sorrowful, as three actors who helped shape and define the work that emerged here in the late 1970s and beyond—Marc Silvia, Debra Rodkin, and Ernest Perry Jr.—died within days of each other.

Marc Silvia

In the 1980s and ’90s, as that beloved entity known variously as “off-Loop theater,” “storefront theater,” and sometimes “fringe theater” was taking shape and planting even deeper roots in the local cultural ecosystem, Marc Silvia was one of its most reliable onstage presences. A cofounder of Econo-Art (along with Lynn Baber and Barbara Reeder), a company that focused primarily on new work, Silvia appeared in most of their plays between 1986 and 1990. 

In the 90s, Silvia was a mainstay at Live Bait Theater and also appeared in shows with City Lit and now-defunct companies such as Cloud 42, Bailiwick Repertory (the predecessor of PrideArts), and Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park.

In an email, Baber says, “I can think of no one who was closer to the top of the storefront theater scene in the 90s. And he was the guy that the storefront companies called to carry the show. Directors picked shows for him.”

Silvia, who moved to Los Angeles in 2001, died November 16 at 64 shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain and liver. He had relocated to the west coast shortly after Maripat Donovan, cocreator (with Vicki Quade) and original star of the long-running hit Late Nite Catechism, moved there. Silvia first worked on the show playing a priest, and also designed the set and stage managed. He later directed the show in LA, along with subsequent sequels penned by Donovan. (Following a legal dispute with Donovan, Quade continues to run her own version of the Late Nite franchise in Chicago. Quade noted in an email, “Marc was the babysitter for my three kids from 1995 to 2000, before leaving to work on the Quade/Donovan productions of LNC in the LA area.”)

Silvia was more than a collaborator with Donovan in LA—he was also a neighbor and dear friend. “Every morning of my life he would come in and sit with me on the couch and we would laugh and talk about what was going on that day and what was going on that week,” Donovan told me in a phone conversation. “He was here every day. I don’t know what I’m gonna do without the guy, you know?”

Donovan notes that she first became aware of Silvia when he performed in Live Bait’s landmark 1994 production of Freud, Dora and the Wolfman. Based on case studies of two of Freud’s most famous patients, the show incorporated puppetry and songs to explore the interior lives of the title characters, with Silvia playing the man haunted by visions of wolves (and hoping to take a shit on the head of his analyst). 

Live Bait cofounder and Freud playwright Sharon Evans wrote about Silvia’s performance in that show on Facebook. “He had to do a Russian accent, share the stage with a wolf puppet. (He did this lovely business where he would scratch the head of the wolf puppet—while he did his analysis with Freud.)  He had to sing— he couldn’t sing but like Rex [Harrison], he spoke his way through his songs—with charm, impeccable timing and tragic flourishes. 

“Once he told me, ‘I am Wolfman.’ And he was. At times tortured. A bit at odds with the conventional world he lived in. He was a true creative. Amusing, profound, and he dug deep night after night. Talented on so many levels. And what a laugh he had!”

Photo of a middle-aged white woman with dark red hair and a big smile.
Debra Rodkin Credit: Courtesy the artist

Debra Rodkin

Debra Rodkin, a founding member of Stage Left Theatre in 1982 (and their managing director for several years, before leaving the company in 1992), and a longtime ensemble member with Redtwist Theatre, died November 20 of cancer. Rodkin was 71.

Her death came as a shock to many who didn’t realize that she had been ill. Her former husband, Duane Sharp, with whom she had maintained a close friendship, told me, “She was diagnosed about three years ago. It started getting worse. This August she found out she had brain, liver, and bone cancer in addition, and that’s why she stopped performing. She was performing right through her treatments. She was a champion.”

Most recently, she appeared in Redtwist’s revival of John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God this past June. A graduate of the Theatre School at DePaul (when it was still called the Goodman School of Drama), Rodkin worked with a wide range of companies during her career, including the now-defunct feminist-oriented Footsteps Theatre, Shattered Globe, AstonRep, 2nd Act Players, Citadel, and Raven. She also worked as a talent agent with Stavins Talent Agency (originally known as Karen Stavins Enterprises) and, as Sharp noted, also had a flourishing career in voiceover and corporate work. I particularly remember her fine performances in two Martin McDonagh plays at Redtwist: The Beauty Queen of Leenane (when the company still called itself Actors Workshop Theatre) and The Cripple of Inishmaan

Freelance director and former longtime Goodman Theatre producer Steve Scott noted on Facebook that he had worked with Rodkin off and on for nearly 30 years. “Smart and funny, passionate and warm, and a formidable presence onstage and off.  One of the mainstays of Chicago’s non-Equity theater—the epitome of what I love about our community.”

Redtwist’s Facebook page collected tributes from many of their ensemble members, while noting that Rodkin was one of the first artists to join the company when it was founded by Michael Colucci and Jan Ellen Graves in 2003. “Over the next two decades, Debra would be a mainstay at Redtwist, always bringing her irreverent sense of humor and incredible passion to the rehearsal hall and the stage. She appeared in a dozen shows in Bryn Mawr’s tiny black box theatre, gracing our stage in almost every season since our founding.”

Sharp, noting that Rodkin’s love of dogs was equal to her love of theater (her beloved dog Lola died a couple of days before she did) suggested that memorial contributions could be made to either Redtwist or PAWS Chicago. A Chicago memorial will be planned for early next year.

An older Black man sits at a diner counter. A young Black woman stands behind the register
Ernest Perry Jr. as Hambone and Nambi E. Kelley as Risa in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running at Goodman Theatre, 2015 Credit: Liz Lauren

Ernest Perry Jr.

On November 23, longtime Chicago actor Ernest Perry Jr. died. He was 76. Perry played dozens of roles at the Goodman, Victory Gardens, Court Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare, Northlight, and many other companies. He also worked outside of Chicago at regional theaters, including Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia. Additionally, Perry collected numerous credits in film and television, including ER, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Barbershop 2, Roll Bounce, Liar Liar, Rage in Harlem, Running Scared, and The Color of Money.

In Mark Larson’s 2019 Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater, Perry shared several stories about his earlier work in Chicago, including Lonne Elder III’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men for Victory Gardens in 1978 and Goodman’s landmark 1979 production of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (which finally made it to Broadway in 1987 with Perry in the cast again).

Perry told Larson: “There was a great deal of talk about going to Broadway with it, but you know how those money people on Broadway are. They ain’t going to put no 32 actors on stage with live music. They wanted to cut it down, and Wole said, ‘No, it’s not going to happen. It took us from ’79 to ’87 to get it to New York . . . I think this show was a turning point. It was the greatest thing to ever happen to the city of Chicago and the Goodman Theatre. No doubt about it.”

Perry had been witness to the growth of the Black theater movement in Chicago, as well as some of the problems Black artists encountered with white critics. He also told Larson: “I can remember sitting in ’75 on the South Side arguing about, how can we get this together? Meaning, the Black Theatre Movement. Nobody had a space that was large enough to do some of the things we wanted . . . We was all trying to get together and we was arguing because the Reader had done a really botched-up review of a production of [Athol Fugard’s] Boesman and Lena, which we thought was fine but they didn’t. I just didn’t see the point of arguing about some white guy writing a review about Boesman and Lena and how ‘he don’t know nothing.’ We’re going to sit up here and spend an hour arguing over this? It doesn’t make any sense. What we need is to all come together, and that’s what Soyinka did. He brought 32 of us together and put us on the stage together and it was great.”

Any stage Perry appeared on became greater. Perry’s turn as Hambone in the Goodman’s 2015 revival of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, directed by Chuck Smith, was particularly memorable. He imbued his character, who is broken yet still somehow visionary (a staple kind of figure in Wilson’s world) with rage and dignity. 

Nambi E. Kelley, former Chicago actor and playwright who played Risa in that production, wrote on Facebook, “I first saw Ernest Perry on stage when I was in high school, a monumental, earth-shattering production of The Iceman Cometh starring Brian Dennehy at the old Goodman. So I was ecstatic to get to work with him on my second show at the Goodman. To say he was one of my theatre daddies is an understatement. Ernest was not only brilliant and hilarious, he also had unlimited knowledge of all things everything. You need help figuring out how to keep more of your theatre check up front, Ernest had advice on how many deductions to claim. You having a dizzy spell in the middle of a rehearsal, he shows up the next day with something to get you good.”

Perry was born and raised in Evanston and lived for several years in Austin. He was also a Vietnam War veteran and the father of three children: Mary (Darrell) Johnson, Jaisy Geans and the late Alison Perry. “As a father he was a fierce protector of his family,” Mary Johnson told me. “Very passionate and very protective of us. We were Black women. He was very proud of us and he thought it was very important that we understood our history and the sacrifices that were made just for us to have the liberty that we have.”

In a written memorial to her father for her business, Hello to Natural, Johnson noted that Perry “would always acknowledge and shed a tear every December 4th, for the late Fred Hampton, whom he knew and believed in. There were many deaths that stayed with him in the wake of so much social and racial injustice and he made it his mission when we were growing up that we learned about it all and respected the progress accomplished on the backs of so many other greats.”

A visitation and funeral for Perry will be held Saturday, December 2 beginning at 3 PM at Progressive Life Giving Word Cathedral, 4500 Frontage Rd. in Hillside. A celebration of life will be held later in the spring. The family notes that, in recognition of Perry’s military service, donations to Vietnam Veterans of America would be welcome.