Back when he was a student at Berwyn’s Morton West High School, Lorenzo Rush Jr. was rather a renaissance man. He did yearbook, sports and chess club, among other extracurriculars. When he migrated over to choir – and then a bit part in the school’s production of “Singin' in the Rain” – he started hearing a repeated refrain that wasn’t part of any composer’s score or any club’s agenda.
“I remember (teacher) Valerie Labonski pulled me aside one day and said, ‘You know what? You could do this for a living if you wanted to,’ I didn’t pay her any mind,” he said. “Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of professional theater. I was like, who sings and dances on stage for a living? I mean, who does that?”
As it turns out, Rush does that. The 2008 Morton alum does it with a vocal range that starts in the baritone basement and soars through the octaves toward contralto. Through Nov. 3, the lifelong Berwyn resident is on stage in Drury Lane’s “The Color Purple,” raising the roof on the show’s opening number as a preacher with a voice and an exuberance that could turn a Satanist into a saint.
Director Lili-Anne Brown also put Rush in a crucial dramatic scene that reveals in a few, fraught sentences the origins of another character’s all-but-incomprehensible cruelty. It’s a scant handful of words, but by the time Rush exits the scene, he’s explained generations of righteous, festering rage. As character work goes, it’s one of the most remarkable scenes on stage this fall.
That’s not all. Tune into “Chicago Fire,” and you’ll see Rush this season, although he’s contractually sworn to secrecy about whom he plays. He’s also been featured on Fox’s mega-hit “Empire” and the USA Network’s “Sirens.”
On Chicago stages, Rush has been working consistently since graduating in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Western Illinois University. From the rollicking Big Moe in “Five Guys Named Moe” at Hyde Park’s Tony-winning Court Theatre to the growling Caiaphas in Paramount Aurora’s unforgettable “Jesus Christ Superstar,” he’s carved out a career that shows no signs of slowing down.
Rush remembers the moment he became aware of the uncanny power musicals can wield.
“We’d go to these state festivals in high school, and one year we saw ‘Ragtime,’ “ he recalled. The Tony Award-winning musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s glorious historical novel follows the tragic and transcendent fate of musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. as he navigates love, life and lethal racism in the early 20th century.
“I didn’t know what I was feeling. But I felt something shift. I wanted to be up there. I wanted to do what they were doing. It was just so amazing,” Rush said.
Still, he hedged his bets. At Western Illinois, he double majored in theater and psychology, so green he didn’t even realize musical theater was a legit major.
“I was oblivious,” he said.
Oblivious or no, theater majors were required to audition for everything, including musicals.
“They told me ‘sing something,’ so I started singing. And they asked me, ‘Are you in the musical theater program?’ And I was like, ‘What’s that?’” Rush said.
As at Morton, one of his instructors pulled him aside.
“She brought me into her office and took out this big box of musicals and plays. She told me, ‘I want you to read every single one of these.'”
She also told him to familiarize himself with a pantheon of greats, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Hinton Battle, Audra McDonald and Paul Robeson among them.
“I attribute a lot of my desire to pursue this to the people at the university who pushed me and exposed me to all these African-American men and women who performed,” Rush said.
He came back to Berwyn after college, and was almost immediately cast in Marriott Lincolnshire’s staging of “Dream Girls.” The work kept coming: Most actors take years to earn enough points to join Equity, the actor’s union. Rush got his card in a matter of months. The awards started stacking up. Last year alone, he picked up a Joseph Jefferson trophy for his work as Big Moe and a Black Theatre Alliance citation for his work in Porchlight Music Theatre’s “Memphis.”
It wasn’t all fun and frolic. For one thing, Rush is not your typical ensemble player. He’s 6-foot-6, and with that rolling-thunder voice, he doesn’t blend easily into the background. That’s a potential liability in musical theater, with the vast majority of roles in the chorus intended to do no more than frame the leading players. Then there’s the fact that Rush is African-American – an ethnicity that accounted for less than 8 percent of total Equity Actors according to the latest stats, published in 2016.
“He is often loathe to take up space because people have been saying, ‘Hey, big dude, go stand in back’ for his whole career,” said “Color Purple” director Brown. “I would love to put him in front. I told him that one day, we're gonna do ‘Guys and Dolls’ … and he's not gonna be Big Jule. He's gonna be Nathan Detroit.”
That’s a casting choice that would break with generations of unnecessarily restrictive casting: From Broadway to Lincolnshire, New York wise guy Nathan Detroit is traditionally cast as a white man. Changing the paradigm isn’t easy. Rush saw the difficulty of shucking off tradition first-hand, during Paramount Theatre’s 2017 “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The production was nominated for almost every local theater award imaginable. Still, some audience members refused to watch a nonwhite Jesus.
“A lot of people weren’t ready for a black Jesus. People walked out. They wrote letters to the producers. Some people asked for refunds,” Rush said.
“When I first started working, you could do ‘Dream Girls’ and ‘Ain’t Misbehaving,’ ‘Big River’ – shows that were deemed 'acceptable,'“ he continued.. “But then, certain directors and shows come along and push the needle – like Paramount. It’s slow, but I think it’s changing.”
When Rush did “Dream Girls” in 2012 at the Marriott, he and the other cast members of color were prepped for the likelihood of being profiled by suburban police.
“I got pulled over every day,” Rush said. “I kept a Playbill in the car. They’d say, ‘You live in Berwyn, what are you doing all the way up here?’ And I’d point to my picture and say, ‘See, that’s me. I’m just trying to get home from work.’
“It’s an ugly part of the world we live in today, but it’s there. Nobody can tell me it isn’t. I’ve experienced it first-hand,” he said.
“The good thing about Berwyn cops,” he added, “is that when I get pulled over here, a lot of times it’s by the cops I saw walking around the halls at Morton. So they pull me over and then it’s like 'Oh! Lorenzo – hey! What’s going on?'”
Rush isn’t alone in combating ignorance on- and off-stage. Chicago’s theater community is tight-knit: Earlier this month, theroot.com wrote a lengthy piece about the way Chicago’s African-American actors and directors show up to support each others’ shows, celebrating each others’ artistry with an intensity that’s highly unusual in a field where the competition is beyond brutal.
According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for both film and stage actors is more than 90 percent. In Chicago, getting cast invariably means beating out easily 100 of your peers, friends and colleagues.
“There’s competition, but nobody’s biting on each other,” Rush said. “No one is pulling someone else down, so they can get hired. I feel like in New York, or most other places, people step over someone else so they can move forward. That’s not the way it works here. It’s just who we are as a community. We support minority talent [whether] that’s Latinx or Asian-American or African-American. We push for it. We know representation matters.”
Rush’s next show is Porchlight’s “Sophisticated Ladies,” opening in January. He’s also amped for Court’s upcoming “Gospel at Colonus,” which puts the tragedy of Oedipus within an African-American Pentecostal church service.
Rush credits Morton for setting him on the path of a successful actor, and Berwyn for providing a home base, while he pursues that path and raises his 4-year-old child alongside his college sweetheart and wife.
“It’s a good mixture of people here,” Rush said. “You don’t see riff-raff hanging out, gang-banging or whatever. I could pick up right now and move to Naperville if I wanted to. But I believe in Berwyn. I always have. I believe it has qualities worth fighting for. And I love the improvements they’re making at Morton.
“I make fun of Berwyn sometimes,” he concluded. “But if I had to leave, it would break my heart.”
If you go
WHAT: "The Color Purple"
WHEN: Through Nov. 3, with performances Wednesday through Sunday
WHERE: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
COST: $55 to $70, with subscriptions offered; dinner-and-show packages also available
INFO: drurylanetheatre.com, 630-530-0111
CELIE'S SOUTHERN TEA: 1 p.m. Oct. 26, before the 3 p.m. matinee; meet Celie and Nettie, played by Eben K. Logan and Kyrie Courter, respectively