Black Ensemble Theater's I Am Who I Am chronicles the life of soul singer Teddy Pendergrass—and one of the reasons that the production has been widely acclaimed is Kevin McIlvaine's portrayal of the more mature Pendergrass. McIlvaine¬—who is an entertainer and a minister—talked with Windy City Times about the musical, Pendergrass and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Windy City Times: Tell me about your background. How did you come to be an entertainer?
Kevin McIlvaine: I became an entertainer because I saw one of my church members performing in a play. It was very exciting, [ and ] I thought, 'I could do that.' I went to audition at the ETA Creative Arts Center [ in Chicago ] for one of those plays, they gave me a shot and the rest is history.
WCT: Being a minister, how do you reconcile your religious side with some of Pendergrass' songs, which are known for being pretty sensual?
KM: Well, we're all human beings and everybody has not been saved all of their lives, and you have to go through some things. How are you going to know how good God is unless you've gone through something? No one goes through life untouched by pain and tragedy. It's not how you fall down, but how you pick yourself up, that determines your true character.
WCT: What was it like meeting Teddy Pendergrass?
KM: It was fabulous. Just to see the humbleness of this man and how he took this situation and [ realized ] that he still has a purpose. I believe that he's the only quadriplegic to get a recording contract. Many of the songs he's made since [ Pendergrass' 1982 car accident ] have been nominated for Grammys.
WCT: You and the show have gotten incredible reviews.
KM: Thank you. I'm just enjoying the opportunity to portray someone who is alive, and who has made an impact in American music. What I will tell you is that I really admire how Teddy Pendergrass takes care of his mom. He is truly a man who makes sure that his family is taken care of.
WCT: You're portraying Pendergrass, of course, but you've also portrayed historical figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Frederick Douglass. Which has been the most difficult role?
KM: Frederick Douglass, without a doubt—because I've never heard his voice. We've heard the voices of [ many figures ] , but there's nothing of Douglass on tape. We're fortunate to have his writings, though. He lived a long time, taught himself how to read and then wrote. He was, without a doubt, the greatest civil-rights leader of the 1800s.
WCT: Is there any other person you'd like to portray or is there a fictional role you'd like to take on?
KM: I don't know about fictional, but I like to portray people [ such as abolitionist ] David Walker, [ Haitian leader ] Toussaint L'Overture and [ jazz singer ] Johnny Hartman.
WCT: Now who's going to portray you?
KM: I don't know; I don't make enough money to have someone portray me. I feel fortunate and blessed that God has [ given ] me enough talent to bring this history to life and to inspire young people. That's what it's all about.
WCT: Let me ask something a little different: Being a minister, what are your feelings regarding the situation involving the Rev. Jeremiah Wright?
KM: Rev. Jeremiah Wright is a fantastic preacher. He's been at [ Trinity United Church of Christ ] for over 30 years, and they're going to [ scrutinize ] one little comment? C'mon, now.
You have to understand the importance of the African-American church to our people. At one point, that was the only place for [ Blacks ] . Anybody who has one of the largest congregations in Chicago has to be doing something right.
I believe that we live in a country where you're allowed freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. If that's what our constitution is about, then that's something we have to stand for. Just because one person makes a statement that everyone doesn't agree with … you just a person based on his character, not based on one sentence he said.
See www.blackensembletheater.org for more information about I Am Who I Am.