E. Faye Butler

July 2024 View more

By Jeff Banowetz

This Chicago theater legend directs Drury Lane’s Ain’t Misbehavin’

E. Faye Butler

It would be tough to come up with another person who’s spent more time on Chicago-area stages than E. Faye Butler. The renowned singer and actress has worked the last four decades in theaters, clubs, cabarets, and music festivals nationally and internationally—but she continues to return home to live and work in the city where she grew up.

She’s performed leading roles with the national touring companies for Mamma Mia!, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Dinah Was, Cope, and Nunsense. Locally, she’s won nine Joseph Jefferson Awards—the Tonys of Chicago-area theater. Those in the western suburbs might recall her as Motormouth Maybelle in the Paramount Theatre’s production of Hairspray or her award-winning turn as Mama Morton in the Drury Lane Theatre’s Chicago.

Next up for the multitalented performer is working behind the scenes as the director of Ain’t Misbehavin’, which runs through August 18 at Drury Lane.

Most people are most familiar with your work as a performer. Is directing new for you?
No, not for me. I think it’s new for other people to see me that way. I’ve been on the other side of the table for a long time—for most of my career. I have directed a lot more out of Chicago, so people in Chicago may not think of me that way. But it’s something I’m comfortable doing.

You’re obviously very familiar with Ain’t Misbehavin’, having performed it multiple times both nationally and here in Chicago. What about it is appealing to you?
This show develops triple threats. It makes stars, and that’s very appealing to me. This is a revue, and it features lots of emotions, and you get to do a lot of different things. You get to sing, dance, and entertain—and we don’t see a lot of entertainers anymore in the theater. And I like this show for that very reason—you’re introduced to five entertainers, which is a much different and more difficult task. I think it’s much more difficult to be a good entertainer than to be a good singer. Or a good dancer. Or a good actor.

This is a great show for artists who are developing in their career—or even at that pinnacle of their career—who want to take another step up and put themselves out there. You’re not hiding behind a role. It’s you out there, and that’s a hard thing to do.

The show features the music of Fats Waller, one of the creators of the jazz soundtrack surrounding what’s now called the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s and 1940s. What is that like to perform now?
It’s the kind of music where you tap your feet, clap your hands, and sing along because you know these songs. The music is iconic because it was written by an American genius, Fats Waller, who never really got the recognition he deserved because he passed away early. [He died of pneumonia in 1943 at the age of 39.] Fats was someone who was just electric and effervescent. He had this great love of life and a great sense of humor.

This period of the ’30s and the ’40s may be long gone, but I miss it. I miss the look. I miss the feeling. I wanted to celebrate [this era] in Chicago and recognize the power of the Black community in Bronzeville. Bronzeville is akin to the Harlem Renaissance. The same thing was going on in every major city in this country. It was when you could see icons like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Fats Waller and his band. It was an amazing time for music and the Black community.

You’ve had quite a career in music and on the stage without ever leaving Chicago for too long. Why have you decided to stay here?
I guess because I love Chicago first. I’ve had agents over the years say to me, “Why do you still stay in Chicago? Why do you stay on the South Side?” But this is where I want to be. I’m very comfortable with who I am, and I’m not swayed by other people’s perceptions of me. My work is my work, and when I’m not working, I’m just a regular old girl from the South Side, and I love that.


Photo: Drury Lane Theatre