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Theater world loses vibrant 'light' with death of ex-Twin Cities actor at 34

The theater world has lost a vibrant light.

Samuel G. Roberson Jr., an actor, writer, director and theater leader who cut his teeth in the Twin Cities before moving to Chicago where he became artistic director of Congo Square Theatre, died Sunday in the Windy City. He was 34.

Roberson had battled health problems over the past several years, including leukemia. He also had had heart and lung transplants.

As news of Roberson's death spread, social media lit up with tributes. One poster dubbed him “a champion of talent and perseverance.” Twin Cities performer and composer Annie Enneking described him as “warm and fierce and generous.” Actor Michael Patrick Thornton described him as “incisive” and “wickedly hilarious.”

Raised in the Bay Area, Roberson studied theater arts at Howard University before moving to the Twin Cities to become a performing apprentice at the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC). For CTC, he acted in such productions as “Bud, Not Buddy,” “Antigone” and “The Lost Boys of Sudan.” CTC artistic director praised him as a standout at the time.

During his three years in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Roberson also worked at Pillsbury House Theatre and the Illusion, which premiered his play “Same Difference” in 2008.

"Sam is a light — he's someone who's shining from the inside out," Bonnie Morris, the Illusion’s producing director, said at the time.

Roberson was keenly interested in using theater to deepen civic and social justice engagement. That was most evident in his role as artistic director of Congo Square Theatre, a plucky, inventive African-American troupe that staged high-impact productions of the works of August Wilson.

Roberson also cut quite a figure on Chicago stages, performing at the Goodman Theater (“The Ballad of Emmett Till”), Steppenwolf (“Samuel J and K”) and Victory Gardens (“The Lost Boys of Sudan),” among others.

His survivors include his wife, Ashley, who also went to Howard.

On Facebook, Twin Cities actor Zach Curtis posted a message to the city where Roberson moved after living in Minnesota: “Chicago, we were sad to see him go to you, but we knew you were lucky people to get him,” Curtis said. “Now, I'm sad to see him go from you, and from us all.”

Will Twin Cities' own Jesse Larson win tonight on NBC's 'The Voice'?

(Jesse Larson, of Brooklyn Park, performed live on Monday's show. Photo by Tyler Golden/NBC)

The NBC show is called “The Voice.” Does that mean the winner should be the contestant with the best singing voice? The best all-around talent? The best entertainer? The most star power/potential?

Depending on your criteria, that could determine who will triumph in Season 12 on Tuesday.

Judging by Monday’s final live performances, Twin Cities’ own Jesse Larson might have the best voice. Soulful, sweet, pliable, potent, rangy, emotional.

There’s no question that Chris Blue is the best all-around talent at the moment.

Lauren Duski could become a country star by the end of the year..

But 15-year-old Aliyah Moulden – the youngest finalist ever – has the “It” factor.

In other words, it’s too difficult to predict who will be named the champ on Tuesday. The show will be broadcast from 8 to 10 p.m. on KARE Ch. 11, with special guest appearances by Miley Cyrus, Chris Stapleton, Zedd with Alessia Cara, Cee Lo Green, Gladys Knight, Little Big Town and Rascal Flatts, among others.

On Monday, each of the four finalists performed three numbers – a cover, an original and a duet with her/his coach.

The best original was Blue’s “Money on You,” a contemporary pop/soul tune with minimalist instrumentation, a dance beat and a slight reggae vibe with its guitar rhythm and vocal phrasing. It’s the kind of tune that would make Usher and Bruno Mars proud.

Duski’s “Déjà Vu,” which she wrote, could be a Nashville smash, suggesting Adele gone country with less vocal firepower.

Larson’s “Woman” is a well-crafted Southern soul ballad written by Stapleton (Larson had performed two Stapleton hits earlier in the season).

As for Moulden’s “Never Be Lonely,” file it under forgettable frothy pop-soul.  But the teenager with youthful effervescence and an adult voice was convincing on “Dancing in the Street” with coach Blake Shelton and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

Larson’s gospelly soulful treatment of the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It to the Streets” may have been the strongest cover on Monday whereas Blue’s dance-happy performance of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” (not a demanding vocal number) electrified the studio audience.

Duski’s rendition of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” lacked gravitas, and her interpretation of Hank Williams’ “There’s a Tear in My Beer” with Shelton was solid but unmemorable.

Duets of Prince tunes were inconsequential, with “Diamonds and Pearls” offered by Blue and coach Alicia Keys and “Let’s Go Crazy” delivered by Larson (playing a pink guitar on a smokin’ solo) and coach Adam Levine (playing a purple guitar).

So who takes the prize on Tuesday night?

It’s like trying to evaluate an MVP in sports. Is it the player of the year? The most valuable player on a winning team? The player who was most indispensable for his/her team?

We’ll see what “The Voice” viewers decide.

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