Aaron Freeman Biography
Parodied Chicago Council Conflicts, Converted to Judaism, Made Directorial Debut, Selected works
Comedian, commentator, actor
Performer and writer Aaron Freeman has been a fixture of Chicago arts and entertainment ever since he created his satirical Council Wars stage show in the early 1980s. He has developed and starred in other one-man shows, including the acclaimed Do the White Thing, written commentaries for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System, and released several comedy CDs. Freeman's comedy is based on astute observation and insatiable curiosity rather than on outrageous transgression, and his curiosity has led him into explorations of new religious realms (he is a convert from Catholicism to Judaism) and into a lifelong love affair with science and technology, which he has taught to children. As his career has developed, his activities have become more and more diverse.
Freeman was born in 1956 in Chicago but was sent as a baby to live with his paternal grandparents on a farm in downstate Pembroke, near Kankakee. "It was such a small town that I clearly remember it was fun—big fun!—to go down and watch people drive on the new blacktop. We would get dressed up for that," he told the Chicago Reader's Michael G. Glab. When he grew to school age, he was returned Chicago and to his mother Leona, a salon owner, and father James, a factory worker. Freeman was enrolled in St. Jarlath Catholic elementary school after the family was befriended by white Catholic civil rights workers from nearby Mundelein Seminary. He later attended Notre Dame School and St. Michael's High School, which seethed with racial conflict after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Not a class clown like other future comedians, the young Freeman was interested in physics in high school and excelled as a student. School was almost too easy. "I had this brilliant idea in my junior year to show my utter contempt for the kids who actually had to study to get anywhere," he told the Reader. "I announced to my teachers that I was going to flunk everything in the third quarter. I thought it would be really funny: A, A, F, A." His teachers were not amused, but Freeman did knuckle down in one area: he tried out for a play, won the role, and became more and more interested in theater. Before finishing high school he was admitted to New York University, where he studied with the famed theater teacher Stella Adler. Soon he was appearing in plays in New York and later in London, England, where he spent several years.
Parodied Chicago Council Conflicts
Back in the United States in 1976, Freeman thought of heading for the West Coast. But when he stopped to visit his family in Chicago he auditioned for the famed Second City comedy troupe and won a spot in its Chateau Louise subsidiary. Driving around the city with a Rolls-Royce grille on the front of his Volkswagen, Freeman got noticed by other performers and began building a career. He and two Second City actors made a low-budget video spoof, Vegetable House, in the early 1980s and put together a comedy program called With Sex in the Title. The Chicago political scene was even wilder than usual at the time as the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington, battled with the white-dominated city council led by alderman Edward Vrdolyak. Freeman devised a pair of characters named Harold Skytalker and Lord Darth Vrdolyak, using the popular Star Wars films to parody the two main antagonists.
The resulting Council Wars sketches were a local smash. The term "council wars" became part of Chicago's political lexicon. Most adult Chicagoans knew about them and could identify Freeman as their creator, and Freeman, newly married to an actress named Wandachristine in 1984, found his doings chronicled by the city's peripatetic gossip columnists. In 1986 Freeman joined the main Second City troupe, and the following year he issued a book called Confessions of a Lottery Ball—in a television commercial he had appeared as a ball that bounced around inside a lottery random-drawing machine. He also wrote articles for Playboy and numerous editorial commentaries for the Chicago's daily newspapers, and he produced a television documentary, Do What You Love, that told the stories of three teenagers who had turned hobbies into businesses. A strong believer in self-reliance, Freeman was a supporter of both President Ronald Reagan and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. As a performer he was partly inspired by the edgy comedy of actress Whoopi Goldberg.
After his early successes, Freeman once again considered heading for Los Angeles when his career hit a slow stretch. But Chicago ties once again kept him in place; he spent several months caring for a friend, Chicago news anchor Max Robinson, in the later stages of Robinson's fatal AIDS infection. In 1989 Freeman and collaborator Rob Kolson began working on sketches for a new show, Do the White Thing. The title, although it was a takeoff on that of director Spike Lee's controversial Do the Right Thing, did not refer to race. Indeed, Freeman's material often didn't emphasize racial themes. "Been there, done that. Unfortunately I'm not that interested in ethnic stuff," he told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Instead, Do the White Thing (which did include a segment in which Freeman portrayed a crazed African consumed with hatred for whites) took its title from its tragicomic central monologue, which dealt with the death of Freeman's brother Julius from lung cancer in 1989. The "white thing" was the blending of all colors into white light that is thought to be experienced by the dying. In the intensely competitive world of Chicago theater, Do the White Thing lasted for several years and became the city's longest-running revue. Freeman and Kolson followed it up with another show with a financial theme, Gentlemen Prefer Bonds, or Girls Just Wanna Have Funds.
Converted to Judaism
During the run of Do the White Thing, Freeman announced his conversion to Judaism. Some wondered whether the conversion was a kind of experiment or stunt on the part of the unpredictable performer, but his seriousness emerged over time as he took courses at Chicago's Spertus College of Judaica and began appearing before Jewish groups. Asked by the Reader if he had believed in Jesus Christ when he was younger, Freeman responded: "As long as I didn't think about it, I did. The point about Judaism is it's a way cool tribe. …I like the traditions of the tribe. I like what it stands for. It's less a matter of theology."
Living with partner Rhonda Steakley, who became the mother of his twin daughters, Freeman branched out into new areas in the 1990s. His high-school enthusiasm for science resurfaced. "When Rhonda and I go out, we go to lectures at [the] I[llinois] I[nstitute of] T[echnology]," he told the Reader. "We're science groupies." His interests also included polo, and he worked on a film script about the sport at one point. An Internet enthusiast as early as 1994, Freeman taught a computer course at Chicago's Columbia College. He hosted a talk show called Metropolis on Chicago's National Public Radio affiliate WBEZ and later began writing commentaries for the network's national evening news program, All Things Considered and for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, where he became the show's first African-American essayist. Freeman was also the host, for ten years, of Talking with Aaron Freeman on Chicago television station WPWR.
On the performance front, Freeman premiered a new revue, Disguised as a Grownup, in 1993. He took on his first dramatic role the following year, playing a political prisoner in a play called Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. He appeared in a Chicago Symphony Orchestra children's concert, and he merged his scientific and broadcast interests as chief science correspondent for the Chicago Public Television technology program Chicago Tomorrow. His Chicago-themed comedy CD 312 4 Ever became a perennial strong seller.
Made Directorial Debut
Freeman continued to perform with Second City, and in 1998 he spearheaded a new company comedy production, An Evening with the Second City, that was mounted on Chicago's predominantly African-American South Side. The company's casts had grown more diverse over the years, but black audiences had mostly stayed away. Freeman made his debut as a director for the new revue, which had some material with African-American themes but also reprised some of the company's tried-and-true skits. "There's nothing inherently North Side or pale about sketch comedy," Freeman pointed out to Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune. "The human condition hasn't changed much in the last 6,000 years."
The early 2000s saw Freeman as busy as ever. Continuing to step into the director's chair on occasion, he retained his knack for wringing comedy from tense situations when he brought together a Palestinian Arab and a Jewish Israeli comedian in a show called The Arab/Israeli Comedy Hour in 2003; years earlier, he had included a sketch called "West Bank Story" in Do the White Thing. His website included links to those of both the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz and the Palestinian militant organization Hamas.
In the early 2000s, Freeman was active in the broadcast field as a writer and correspondent for the Chicago Public Radio newsmagazine program Eight Forty-Eight. Freeman also kept up his solo performing career, developing a diverse clientele by appearing before business, campus, and Jewish groups all over the U.S., and he developed new one-man show, The Joy of News, in 2004. Chicago Tribune reviewer Nina Metz complained that in that show, the "most interesting subject," Freeman's status as an African-American Jew, "remains untouched." But Freeman prepared to address that topic with the release of a new CD, Confessions of a Hebro, in 2005.
Council Wars (political satire), 1984.
Confessions of a Lottery Ball (book), 1986.
(With Rob Kolson) Do the White Thing (comedy program with serious monologues), 1989.
(With Rob Kolson) Gentlemen Prefer Bonds (comedy program), 2000.
The Arab/Israeli Comedy Hour (comedy revue), 2003.
The Joy of News (one-man comedy program), 2004.
312 4 Ever (CD), 2004.
Confessions of a Hebro (CD), 2005.
Chicago Reader, April 23, 1993, sec. 1.
Chicago Sun-Times, September 19, 1986, p. 10; October 9, 1987, p. 20; December 22, 1989, p. 5; March 12, 1993, Weekend Plus sec., p. 10; April 30, 1993, Weekend Plus sec., p. 25; April 17, 1994, Show sec., p. 2; May 20, 1994, Weekend Plus sec., p. 3; August 2, 1994, p. 16.
Chicago Tribune, April 10, 1998, p. 4; April 11, 2003, p. 2; December 23, 2004, p. 8.
Reason, August 1994, p. 51.
Aaron Freeman, www.aaronfreeman.com (March 3, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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