Identity, Heritage, and Growing up in ‘Muthaland’

Muthaland at 16th Street Theater is a one woman show written and performed by the talented Minita Gandhi. It’s a showcase for her dexterity and ability to create and inhabit characters we love, and characters who make our skin crawl, as she goes on a journey to her parents homeland. In 16th Street’s bare black box theatre, there is only one practical light onstage, and the rest of the show travels on in the darkness with Minita herself. She walks down the staircase through the audience carrying her suitcases to the practical standing lamp on stage. Little did we know she was carrying the world of the play in her arms.

The opening of Minita Gandhi’s Muthaland is an energy-packed celebration of femininity and personality. She animatedly tells us about her life, her hopes for love and her family drama, which includes the upcoming wedding of her dear brother Milin. Minita separates herself as narrator by giving herself the affectionate nickname of Minu when she’s playing in a scene from history.

Minu is an independent woman, the daughter of two Indian immigrants who are audience favorites for Minita to affectionately and sometimes comedically interpret onstage. She is 35 years old, and has been getting her groove back by listening to Pink and Fiona Apple, reading The Power of Now and taking a Pranayama breathing class. After a visit to a gynecologist, Minu learns she only has two years to get a husband and have babies before she has to be concerned about freezing her eggs, and this is a terrifying enough thought that she returns to her prayer cabinet. Minu is a practicing Jain, which at more 85,000 years old is the one of the world’s oldest religions. She recites the Namokar mantra, one of the most fundamental and spiritually significant prayers in Jainism. This moment of gravitas is our first insight into bubbly actress Minu’s depth of intention and spiritual practice.

Though dramatically this is very clever, sometimes Minita playing an earlier, more innocent Minu is hard to buy. At the end of the production, when a you see a grown Minita in her mature fury and might, you understand why this character, that is so very personal and so profoundly changed in real life, might be harder for Minita to access than the multitude of personalities she brings to life onstage. These other characters are defined very specifically through gesture and voice, and it is clear who is speaking at any given time.

Minita the writer gives us access to the finer points in her life and family’s traditional customs in a delicate way that allows us to laugh at Minu’s reactions without laughing at cultural differences – which can often happen if an audience doesn’t understand something outright. Milin for example is in an arranged marriage, something Minu has a really hard time understanding at first, but once she sees how happy he is the audience is happy for him too. So, Minu is off to India, in one of the most fantastic visual moments of the play. Contained in her tiny suitcase is truly the entire world, as she pulls out costumes and scatters the stage with color as the lights (designed by Cat Wilson) flood the world with a pink and orange hue, transforming the black walls. You can feel the heat and the dust as Minu describes it to us thanks to the vivid text and suggestive design visuals. The sound also helps us understand our cultural context, as a variety of American and Bollywood love songs are played throughout the piece.

Muthaland is based off of Minita’s true experiences during her travels to India, and I do not want to spoil the surprise that is the crux of the drama in this play. I will speak to her magnificent performance of these gravity-filled moments. During a scene I will refer to as “The Interrogation” she masterfully plays a council of older Indian men who are questioning her honesty with a misogyny that will make your toes curl. Legs spread wide in a single spotlight, Minita easily embodies the threat and danger of these men as a steady heart-beat like pulse (sound by Barry Bennett) underscores their words. It conjures visceral memories of femmes being accused of lying when under threat from men, and is very hard to watch though artfully portrayed. The experience is so awful, that when it is over, it prompts Minu to tell her parents she hates India – thankfully only a temporary conclusion.

Muthaland is about the forcible growth of an already strong young woman, who was forced to undergo an emotionally and physically violent experience yet still reconcile her identity. In a spectacular final ten minutes of the play, Gandhi goes on an emotional journey from absolute devastation to a realistic healing process, perhaps even slightly optimistic about what is in her future. I commend Minita for her stamina in performing in this fabulous 90-minute production of her own work, and I can’t wait to see what productions lie in its future.

BIAS ALERT: Minita Gandhi is a friend.

Berwyn Cultural Center
6420 16th Street, Berwyn IL
August 31-October 7, 2017
Directed by Heidi Stillman
Photos by Anthony Aicardi

Assistant Director – Maeli Goren
Dramaturg – Lavina Jadhwani
Voice and Movement – Lanise Antoine Shelley
Scenic Properties – Jesse Gaffney
Lighting Design – Cat Wilson
Sound Design – Barry Bennett

Rescripted Announces ‘The Key: Youth Critics Mentorship Program’

CHICAGO (September 8, 2017) – Greenhouse Theater Center’s Artistic Director Jacob Harvey is pleased to announce The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program, a training program for Chicago youth in arts criticism created by national online arts platform Rescripted, The Chicago Inclusion Project and entertainment critic Oliver Sava and hosted by the Greenhouse. Launching this fall, the ten-week initiative for youth ages 16 – 20 will include arts criticism workshops and lectures with the program’s creators, as well as guest speakers from all facets of the Chicago theater community. Students will attend Chicago theater productions throughout the fall season, write original critiques, undergo one-on-one editing sessions and create personal blogs to host their writing portfolio and multimedia reviews. Select critiques will also be published on Rescripted.

Applications for The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program are currently being accepted at rescripted.org through Friday, September 22, 2017. For additional information and inquiries, please e-mail thekey.chicago@gmail.com.

“Our industry depends on having actively engaged critics who can perceive and appreciate the efforts and viewpoint of the artist,” comments Rescripted Editor-In-Chief Regina Victor. “I’m thrilled to partner with a savvy writer like Oliver Sava to co-facilitate this course in partnership with Chicago Inclusion Project, and grateful to Greenhouse Theater Center for hosting us. We are looking forward to mentoring the next generation of theater artists and writers as they learn to navigate the field of arts criticism. We want to be a part of the movement to ensure there are a multitude of critical perspectives to accommodate the increasing diversity of the stories on our stages.”

“We’ve put together a program that will give young critics the knowledge they need to start their careers, adds Oliver Sava. “This isn’t just about learning how to write reviews – it’s about helping young critics engage with what they’re watching on a deeper level, turn that engagement into pieces that will grab readers and learn how to sell that writing so they can ideally get paid for their work. This program is primarily focused on theater, but it will be multi-disciplinary because knowing how to write about a wide range of media is essential in the current arts journalism field. There are voices that could significantly enrich critical discourse in the city, and organizations like Chicago Inclusion Project and outlets like Rescripted are already working to make these voices heard.”

Chicago Inclusion Project Founder Emjoy Gavino comments, “The conversation around arts criticism, its practitioners and their ethical obligation to inclusion is truly exciting right now. As always our organization seeks to accompany talk with action we are thrilled to usher in the new wave of critics. Our community and industry deserve new voices.”

The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program joins the Greenhouse Theater Center’s increasing number of initiatives aimed at growing Chicago theater, including the The Trellis Residency Initiative, a new professional development program for Chicago-area playwrights under 30, and the MC-10 Playwrights Ensemble, a collection of ten of the country’s most sought-after established and mid-career Chicago playwrights and theater-makers now in residence at the Greenhouse.

 

About the Program Creators/Mentors

Regina Victor is a producer, dramaturg, director and performer from Oakland California. They attended Phillips Exeter and Santa Clara University, from which they hold a B.A. in Theatre Arts and Religious Studies. Regina has worked with theatres such as Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Marin Theatre Company, Chicago Dramatists, The Hypocrites, Shattered Globe, Walkabout Theatre, and more. Victor’s writing has been published on Rescripted, Howlround and The Bold Italic. They are currently serving as the 17/18 Artistic Apprentice and Multicultural Fellow at Steppenwolf Theatre, as well as a member of the 17/18 Stage Directors and Choreographers’ Observership Class.

Oliver Sava is a Chicago-based entertainment writer focusing on comic books, television, and theater. He was a staff Theater Writer at Time Out Chicago, where he had a Performer Of The Week interview column. His writing on comic books, film, podcasts, television, and theater has been published at The A.V. Club, Chicago Theater Beat, Chicago Tribune, The L.A. Times, NPR Books, New York Magazine’s Vulture, VICE, and Vox. He is a 2017 fellow of The Eugene O’Neill Center’s National Critics Institute and a recipient of the 2017 Eisner Award for “Best Comics-Related Journalism/Periodical” for his A.V. Club writing. He graduated from Loyola University with degrees in English and Political Science, and was the dramaturg for Jackalope Theatre’s Prowess (2017 Jeff Award winner for Best New Play).

Rescripted is a collective of theatre professionals from all levels and disciplines in the field who are interested in engaging with their peers on a critical level. Founded by Regina Victor and Katherine O’Keefe, Rescripted is a national response to the need for a broader range of voices in the critical sphere. With writers in Los Angeles, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area, Rescripted is shaped by its contributors’ interests, and specializes in publishing reviews, artist interviews, and essays on topics pertinent to our field. With a supportive framework in mind, Rescripted aims to reprogram the way we critically engage with each other while cultivating critics and adding new voices to the field. www.rescripted.org.

Founded by Actor/Casting Director Emjoy Gavino, The Chicago Inclusion Project is a collective of artists, committed to creating inclusive theater experiences by bringing together Chicago artists and audiences normally separated by ethnic background, economic status, gender identity, physical ability and countless other barriers. By deliberately choosing the unexpected, both in play choices and non-traditional casting, cultivating a diverse audience by bringing new combinations of artists to as many communities in Chicago (and it surrounding suburbs) as possible, choosing facilities for the multiple projects that are handicap accessible and keeping price of tickets affordable, The Chicago Inclusion Project programming aims to unite diverse collections of Chicagoans. For more information, visit www.thechicagoinclusionproject.org

About the Greenhouse Theater Center
The Greenhouse Theater Center is a producing theater company, performance venue and theatre bookstore located at 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Our mission is first and foremost to grow local theatre.
The Greenhouse Theater began its producing life in 2014 with the smash hit Churchill, after which came 2016’s much-lauded Solo Celebration!, an 8 month, 16 event series highlighting the breadth and depth of the solo play form. This year, the Greenhouse announced a full subscription season, with a mix of multi-character and solo plays. With a focus on our community, the Greenhouse is also launching the Trellis playwriting residency, an initiative designed to cultivate the next generation of Chicago theatre creators and a two-tiered education program for college and high school students.

As a performance venue, our complex offers two newly remodeled 190-seat main stage spaces, two 60-seat studio theaters, two high-capacity lobbies, and an in-house rehearsal room. We strive to cultivate a fertile environment for local artists, from individual renters to our bevy of resident companies, and to develop and produce their work. In 2016, the Greenhouse announced a new residency program, which offers a reduced rate to local storefront companies while giving the Greenhouse a stake in the resident’s success. We house Chicago’s only dedicated used theatre bookstore, located on the second floor of our complex.

With new ideas always incubating, the Greenhouse is flourishing. Come grow with us!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PRESS CONTACT: David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg Public Relations
david@drpublicrelations.com / (773) 505-1429

 

A Phenomenal and Heartbreaking ‘Lela & Co.’ Extends at Steep

By Hallie Palladino

Steep Theatre has just extended its devastating and urgently important play, Lela & Co. I wanted to take a moment to recommend this production and encourage people to see it now that it has been extended through September 16th.

I feel so fortunate to have seen Cruz Gonzales-Cadel play Lela in this heartbreaking two-hander opposite Chris Chmelik. Gonzales-Cadel has phenomenal range. We immediately fall in love with Lela as she disarms us with her charm and draws us into her story.We start in Lela’s childhood home with a loving mother and a father who alternates between indulgent and abusive. The limited abilities of women to shield each other from harm is a theme established early. As the dangers around her multiply, we watch Lela transform from an innocent child into a determined and courageous woman. For his part, Chmelik plays a host of villains, each fully fleshed out, each differently evil. Written by the British playwright Cordelia Lynn when she was just twenty-six, Lela is original in every way. Lynn speaks the unspeakable and holds us all accountable.

I won’t describe or summarize the story because much of its dramatic value is in its surprises. We never know what’s about to happen and, like Lela, we feel powerless to stop the cascade of horrors that unfold as she recounts her story. I’ve never felt so much real fear, rage and despair in the theater. A big part of it was knowing, more than a play, what happens to Lela is happening to to girls and women around the world every day.

Lela examines the way women become casualties of war showing how their stories are coopted, their voices silenced and their abuse marginalized. The narrative style creates the experience of being inside the head of a women who has internalized the narrative of her abusers along side the truth of her lived experience. This gives the audience an opportunity to experience the cognitive dissonance that results from trauma. The tone of Robin Witt’s direction creates jarring juxtapositions between the events that happen to Lela and the way she describes them. Lela uses a range of coping techniques from detachment, to rationalization, to minimizing, to self-blame. All the time as her underlying grief, rage and pain are straining to be let out. By the time Lela hits its crescendo and the playwright allows her character to enact a desperately longed for moment of confrontation all the air goes out of the room.

The space has been transformed into an intimate café with limited cabaret style seating and the actors perform on raised platforms above our heads. The action happens around the audience so we’re immersed and therefore implicated in Lela’s predicament. All the design elements seamlessly support this atmosphere of fear and claustrophobia.

I must end with a really big trigger warning here. There is graphic sexual violence both portrayed and discussed. This play deals plainly with some of the darkest subject matter I’ve ever heard onstage. Lela explicates the economic and political circumstances of war and how they enable the exploitation of women. Lynn’s story also reveals the tragic irony of how third party “liberating” and “peacekeeping” forces in conflict zones participate in crimes against women. No, Cordelia Lynn’s play isn’t easy to watch, but it is essential.

BIAS ALERT: Cruz and I know each other from Something Marvelous and have bonded over having children around the same age. Likewise, I know Peter Moore, Steep’s Artistic Director, because our kids were in the same class and I’ve submitted my work to his literary department. All this just means I was already a fan of the theater and of Cruz before I went to see this play.

Extended through September 16th!

CAST:
Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel
Chris Chmelik

PRODUCTION TEAM:
Director – Robin Witt*
Stage Manager – Lauren Lassus**
Set Design – Joe Schermoly
Lighting Design – Brandon Wardell**
Sound Design – Thomas Dixon**
Costume Design  – Jessica Kuehnau Wardell
Prop Design – Maria DeFabo**
Fight Choreography – Christina Gorman
Dramaturg – Carina Abbaticchio
Assistant Directors – Michael Rogerson & Isabel Perry
Production Manager – Julia Siple*

*Denotes Steep Company Member
**Denotes Steep Artistic Associate

The Neo-Futurists ‘The Food Show’ Nourishes the Soul

By Abhi Shrestha

Everything I’ve seen by the Neo-Futurists has always had an inherent sense of vulnerability and a fearless raw honesty which always allows me leave the show knowing the performers intimately. Their new venture, boldly titled The Food Show and created by Dan Kerr-Hobert, is no different . Performed in Metropolitan Brewing’s warehouse in Avondale, the Neos have transformed the warehouse into a badass kitchen stocked with all of the things you might need and have created an a night of adventure structured around a menu. When the audience enters the space, the writer-performers come up and ask everyone about their food allergies, because no one is trying to die tonight. Though unfortunately not everyone gets to eat throughout the night, everyone does get a complimentary beer (which if you’re lucky enough to get an orange slice during the night, I recommend putting it in the beer for a lovely, refreshing summer drink) .

In classic Neo fashion, they strike up friendly conversation with the audience before the performance begins. This simple act of making conversation does a lovely job in building a performer/ audience relationship that allows both sides to feel more comfortable and able to be vulnerable. The performers take us through a culinary journey, cooking up stories of their past to present to us on a plate. They demonstrate various cooking techniques, and explore different culinary philosophies before focusing on a story by one of the performers. Like being in the kitchen of a friend or family, the performers tell stories while cutting onions, making pasta, poaching an egg, or making a roux. The themes of the stories run the gamut of emotions, whether it’s about the healing powers of food and cooking, the frustrating chore it is to eat for some folx and the privilege it is to be a picky eater, or about how food has the ability to bring people closer together or drive kids at the lunch table apart. One story that stood out for me was Tif Harrisons story about the food as therapy, something that can dig you out of a place that feels so dark, to one that has some light. The ensemble is really tight, and though the energy of the piece could use a kick or two throughout the night, there is a simple beauty in watching people listen to each other.

Listening doesn’t just mean being quiet, it means being present, and the presence is felt from everyone in the room. This sense of presence is also amplified by the various design elements. With a giant mirror that hovers about the countertop the audience is invited to a closer view of the action that is happening on the table, which allows us to closely follow along with each step of the recipe. The lighting design is a feat in this non-traditional venue that is not inherently equipped with the tools and architecture that can be found in a conventional theatre. The lighting does a fantastic job helping the audience focus in on the action in front of us, and works harmoniously with the music to create an atmosphere that feels curated for each story. The music composed by Ronnie Kuller and performed by Spencer Meeks stands out as they either play piano, sing, or make sounds with a singing bowl, that allows the transitions into various stories feel seamless, and helps with the pacing of the night.

The Food Show is an examination of the role food and cooking has had on every one of us. I felt invited to have different opinions without feeling like I was in a battle or being left out of a conversation. Food means so much to so many people, as someone who immigrated to America when I was three, cooking home recipes and eating my mother’s cooking was how I hold on to my culture. Food is how I get to know people, I can tell a lot about someone by what they cook, and what they eat, and I felt that I came out of The Food Show really knowing these humans. There were pieces of myself that I found in so many of the stories I heard that night, whether it was the difficulty of cutting meat out of my diet for ethical reasons, or how often we don’t realize how our eating habits tell us so much about ourselves. Leaving the theatre I was reminded of a quote by Krista Tippet from her book Speaking about Faith, “You can disagree with another person’s opinions. You can disagree with their doctrines. You can’t disagree with their experience.” At the end of the night I left the show hungry for some salmon, but satisfied knowing that I wasn’t alone.

Photo Credit: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

The Food Show runs through Sept. 2nd at Metropolitan Brewing, 3031 N. Rockwell.

Black Lives Black Words Centers Black Women

Black Lives, Black Words is an artistic movement that began in Chicago but has since had events in two continents, three countries, and seven cities. Producer and playwright Reginald Edmund began this venture with Executive Producer Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway in 2015, prompting playwrights and spoken word artists to respond to the question “do black lives matter?”

The resounding response: not only do black lives matter but black art does too. As Edmund has said “There isn’t anything particularly revolutionary about what ‘Black Lives, Black Words’ is doing in and of itself, it’s the fact that we are doing what so many organizations and institutions that have scammed off of the diversity and inclusion discussion, and that have the resources should be doing or failing to do, which is what makes us a revolutionary theatrical endeavor. Giving artists of color actual control over their own narratives, and giving the community voice, access, and space to be heard, as well as bridging communities with a shared global dialogue.”

There are a few events to look out for if you’re trying to catch a BLBW event this August. Starting August 14th at 7:30pm they are partnering with Collaboraction to host the “Our America Party.” Part of a greater “Our America” series, this project asked local people of color, LGBTQ+ and female playwrights and directors to speak on the state American Dream. Artists featured include Arti Ishak, Rohina Malik (Yasmina’s Necklace can be seen at the Goodman later this year), Dana Lynn Formby, Tanuja Jagernauth, and many more.

On August 21st, Black Lives Black Words is hosting a TEDTalks inspired speaker series called THE ARTIST SPEAKS, where legends such as prominent director Ron OJ Parson, and Malik Gillani, Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, will speak to the history and state of the arts in America, and what lies in the future.

These events culminate in the third Black Lives, Black Words Event, this year to be held at Victory Gardens Theater August 22nd at 7:30pm. What’s different about this year? Every piece is written, produced, and directed by black women and femmes. Playwrights include Loy Webb, Nambi Kelly, Adia Alli, and directors include Nicole Michelle Haskins and BLBW’s Executive Director, Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway.

See what participating artists have to say about Black Lives Black Words this year:

“BLBW is an innovative, hard-hitting, internationally scoped project that focuses on the truth telling of the Black narrative in this country and beyond. I am so thrilled to have been asked to contribute a piece on something I am very passionate about, and to be able to witness the talents of all the other artists involved. I am particularly thrilled that all of the pieces in this installment are directed and written by women. Reggie Edmund is certainly doing his part to be a game-changer in the field of producing. I am humbled and grateful to be a part.” – Nambi Kelley (Playwright, Actor)

“I had the pleasure of covering BLBW’s for Newcity when it first started. It was a rough and raw idea at that point, finally coming to fruition. Since then it has turned into a refined movement that is touching lives both in the states and abroad. Seeing this movements growth first hand, shows the impact that artist truly committed to the community can have and you don’t need huge institutions behind you to be a force. And now that the movement is branching out giving women a voice, and addressing our current political climate, just shows that this movement that Reggie and Sim have helmed, isn’t just talking about change like most folks do. They are creating it from the ground up. And I am sincerely grateful and honored to lend my artistry to further their cause.” – Loy Webb (Playwright, Critic)

Tickets are an accessible $10-13 for events, check out http://www.blacklivesblackwords.org for more information!

 

 

The Comrades ‘In The Wake’ Examines Liberal Blind Spots Post 9/11

Lisa Kron’s 2010 play In the Wake, produced by The Comrades at the Greenhouse Theater, revisits the political events of 2000-2005 beginning with the Supreme Court decision in Bush vs. Gore. In the Wake is concerned with the ways American liberals, especially privileged white coastal liberals, develop blind spots that prevent them from fully understanding the life circumstances that might cause a person to cultivate a conservative viewpoint. This is a timely subject in the wake of Trump’s rise to power, although the play predates it. The play makes important points about the state of American political discourse though it is somewhat weighted down by an unwieldy structure.

The play centers around a twenty-something woman, Ellen (Rose Sengenberger), a liberal New Yorker distraught about the 2000 election. The play is populated by Ellen’s boyfriend Danny (Mike Newquist), his sister Laurie (Erin O’Brien), Laurie’s wife, Kayla (Adrienne Matzen) and their friend Judi (Kelli Walker). Ellen divides her time between non-profit work and traveling around the country making speeches about the unintended consequences of public policy. At an engagement at Harvard she reconnects with a childhood friend, Amy (Alison Plot), and they begin an affair.

Unwilling to leave her current relationship, Ellen asks Danny to accept her involvement with Amy, and perhaps in the wake of some guilt about his own long since confessed infidelity, he resigns himself to the fact his girlfriend is in a second relationship. Meanwhile Amy falls madly in love with Ellen and begs her to leave Danny. But Ellen is in denial about how much emotional damage she is inflicting on both her lovers. Meanwhile, Laurie and Kayla strongly disapprove and their relationship with Ellen is badly strained.

The best moments zeroed in on Ellen’s relationships. Alison Plot’s performance as Amy was a highlight. Plot does a nice job of portraying the agonizing experience of loving someone who is emotionally unavailable. The brief but touching love scene between Ellen and Amy is one of the most engaging moments of the play. And when Ellen makes things worse with empty platitudes about holding Amy in her heart, Amy’s pain feels very real. Kelli Walker’s performance as the world-weary Judi is also notable. Judi brings perspective about growing up poor in a small conservative town and then spending her career abroad working in refugee camps. Walker’s deadpan delivery also brings some much needed humor into an otherwise very serious play.

Ellen’s character mainly talks at her friends and family, this is by design. The point of the play is that Ellen sincerely believes if other people just had the same information they would always agree. Rose Sengenberger plays Ellen as passionate and earnest so we understand it is not malice on her part but rather an astounding lack of self awareness, which Kron uses to make a point about the way liberals have contributed to the bitter partisanship that is dividing our country.

Unfortunately Ellen’s long speeches have the impact of slowing down the pace. To compound this the action is broken up by news clips and direct address monologues giving this two hour and twenty minute show a choppy stop-and-start effect. The play relies heavily on historical footage to establish what’s happening in the outside world. But news clips alone, though they might have an emotional impact, are not inherently dramatic. Unfortunately, the current events in the play often feel like a backdrop, rarely integrated into the story in a way that impacts the lives of the individual characters.

What I was really missing from the play ultimately was a connection between the personal and the political. There are two plots but they don’t intersect or illuminate each other in more than an abstract way except for a very brief conversation about 911. For instance, in a surprising omission, although the play is set pre-marriage equality, little is said about the fact the fact Laurie and Kayla’s marriage isn’t legally recognized. The practical and emotional hardships this situation created go unmentioned. This is one example of a place where the play could’ve connected the dots between its character’s hopes and dreams and the political landscape of the country at that time.

In spite of these structural and story challenges, the cast brings a lot of heart to their performances and the play makes an important point. That Americans of all political persuasions could do better job of listening to opposing viewpoints.

About Face Youth Ensemble’s ‘Brave Like Them’: Explosive, Feminist, and Unapologetically Queer

By Regina Victor

About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble’s Brave Like Them is an exciting and dynamic exploration of cultural movements and gender expression infused with feminist punk. The show is entirely devised and performed by the members of the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble and co-directed by About Face’s Education and Outreach Director Ali Hoefnagel and Education Coordinator Kieran Kredell. The script was well-written, and memorable, especially impressive because the age range for the ensemble that devised it is 13-23 years old. The play takes place in the Riot Grrl movement of the 1990s, an underground punk feminist movement that originated Washington state, credited with being the beginning of third wave feminism. Famous bands that came out of that era include Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Sleater-Kinney. Brave Like Them takes us to Washington state in that era, and investigates both the successes of the movement but also the racial and class discrepancies – most of the voices of this movement were middle class, white cisgender women.

The set (designed by Scott Penner) is papered with posters from iconic punk acts like Joan Jett, and the young people roam the space at the top of the show, cleverly setting our place and time. A couple of the ensemble members were talking to an audience member, and pretended to be mystified and confused by his cell phone flashlight, much to everyone’s amusement. Complete with twinkling bulb lights and alley seating, it’s hard not to feel like you’re at a real punk show when the actors break into their energetic opening dance highlighted by multicolored club lights (lighting by Kaili Story).

Danni (Kyla Norton) and their best friend Jamie (Sandy Nguyen) are old friends reunited after Danni lived in racist Tacoma for six years. As they try to find their place in the punk movement, Danni wonders why more of their favorite punk bands don’t look like them. Danni’s old crush Sam (a charismatic and stylish Ophelia Ashley Murillo) conveniently comes waltzing back into Danni’s life, asking if they would like to hang out at a venue called The Crocodile. There, they meet femme superstar Hannah (Lilian McGrady)  who chants her feminist manifesto “Girls to the front!” over a thrumming bass to an adoring crowd. Danni’s friend Jamie gets all up in this movement and finds her sense of self, immediately changing her aesthetic to match what a Riot Grrl is “supposed” to look like, complete with leather jacket, red lips and fishnets, Nguyen does a wonderful job portraying both Jamie’s bravado and her emotional complexity as she struggles balance her new Riot Grrl friends with Danni.  The costume design by Jeanine Fry informs us where each character is in their lives and gender expressions effortlessly. Danni, still trying to find their identity, is in their school uniform for most of the play.

While Jamie is off with the Riot Grrls, Danni meets some new friends in the form of an energetic ensemble that hangs out and plays punk music in the school gym. Noa (Jude Gordon), Coe (Jimbo Pestano) and Chris (Ben Flores), are all punk rockers who used to roll with Hannah until her movement got too exclusionary. We see this demonstrated very clearly when one of Hannah’s shows includes the words “no dudes no dykes no douchebags.” Coe uses they/them pronouns, Noa ze/sir, and Chris he/him. Chris points out that he is often excluded from feminist dialogue like Hannah’s because of his male presentation, but that erases the portion of his life where he was perceived as female, and his ability to talk about those injustices. Chris poses an interesting question: how can he possibly convince other people his masculinity isn’t a threat? It’s a really interesting argument that I’ve heard socially but was refreshing to see onstage, and Ben Flores’ thoughtful portrayal of this character really shines.

Coe and Noa were equally amazing ensemble members, with Noa’s dry wit cutting across the dialogue and generating big laughs from the audience. Noa refers to Jamie as the girl who “suddenly has all the buttons.” As someone who’s worked in community organizing, I found this particularly hilarious – there is always one eager person who shows up with 80 buttons on their jacket even though they’ve been to two rallies. In order to describe Jimbo Pestano’s portrayal of Coe, I have to be colloquial: Coe was serving band frontperson intersectional realness in a crop top and a flannel blazer with shoulder pads and skinny jeans. Serving. All. Day. One particularly fantastic lyric voiced by Coe and Danni I will be singing to all of my cisgender friends was “Nice gender, did your mommy pick it out?!”

The entire ensemble was strong, but there were many other notable performances, including the hilariously spacey record store clerk (Sharon Pasia), who encourages Danni to be a part of the movement, and not a part of the crowd. Danni’s mother, played by Mia Vivens, gives an endearing performance as a mother who has to navigate a new relationship with her child. Fresh from a divorce and struggling financially, she is often anxious and sometimes angry (but only, as she rightfully points out, because she’s black and had to sell her business and live in Tacoma at her husband’s behest for six years – I feel you sis), but never gives up on loving her family fiercely.

Brave Like Them is about the power of friendship, the discovery of personal identity, and the multifaceted aspects a movement needs to have so that it can succeed. It examines our fear of breaking apart systems and movements when we have nothing to replace them with, even if the movement is imperfect. A movement needs to encompass all people, or it inevitably dies. However, Brave Like Them does not condemn these movements, but examines how even when they are fleeting, even when we find ourselves in opposition to them, they can help us find the most important parts of ourselves.

Brave Like Them closes August 6th: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Directors: Ali Hoefnagel & Kieran Kredell
Assistant Dir: Donny Acosta
Devised by the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble

FEATURING
Ophelia Ashley Murillo
Charlie Blackburn
Melody Derogatis
Ben Flores
Jude Gordon
Liv Haman
Elliot Hobaugh
Lillian McGrady
Sandy Nguyen
Kyla Norton
Sharon Pasia
Jimbo Pestano
Jae Taylor

PRODUCTION
Production Manager: Melissa Hubbert
Music Director: Nicholas Davio
Choreographer: Erin Kilmurray
Asst. Choreographer: Gabrielle Wilson
Lighting Designer: Kaili Story
Sound Designer: Brandon Reed
Costume Designer: Jeanine Fry
Set Design: Scott Penner
Prop Design: Meghan Erxleben
Stage Manager: Kasey Trouba
Asst. Stage Manager: Serena Dully

Photo Credit: (left to right) Jude Gordon, Ben Flores, Kyla Norton and Jimbo Pestano in About Face Youth Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of Brave Like Them, co-directed by Ali Hoefnagel and Kieran Kredell. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

BIAS ALERT: I directed for the About Face Out Front 2017 Series, and identify as genderqueer.

Fisticuffs and Feminism in The Factory Theater’s ‘Fight City’

By Hallie Palladino

In a video interview on The Factory Theater website, Artistic Director Scott OKen says of the genesis of his latest play, Fight City, “I wanted to turn the current gender politics around… [and] I wanted to do an action play…that has a real kickass female police force that beat each other up with sticks.” This is exactly what Fight City delivers in the form of a clever comedy that satirizes standard sexist tropes within the action genre.

This sixteen actor ensemble piece, skillfully directed by Jill Oliver, is set in a dystopian 2077. The world order has collapsed. Yet in spite of the elimination of guns, society is violent and lawless. Women are an all powerful majority. Men are disenfranchised and organize for equal rights. The protagonist, Barb Davies (Jennifer Betancourt) is a skilled fighter with the Central City Police Department’s elite all-female fighting force, the ironically named Peace Keepers. Her fellow wisecracking PK compatriots are played with sharp-tongued swagger by Meredith Rae Lyons (White), Almanya Narula (Avory) and Ashley Yates (Argent). Together they fight criminals while delivering witty one liners.

A defining attribute of standard cops-versus-criminals action stories is an exaggerated performance of hyper-masculine stereotypes. Seeing a cast of women embody this style draws attention to it’s absurdity. Fight City humorously explores the performance of gender in a way similar to that of ATC’s production of Jaclyn Blackhaus’s Men on Boats, directed by Will Davis earlier this season. That show examined a spectrum of masculinities by casting an all female-identifying ensemble to play a variety of male archetypes. In different ways both plays explore how rituals of masculinity function to reinforce codes of behavior within male spaces.

OKen gets a lot of comedic mileage out of this gender role reversal. He has invented a parallel vocabulary of slang to fit the female-centric culture. Crude references to both male and female anatomy illuminates the role language plays in perpetuating gender stereotypes. Narula, as Barb’s salty partner, Avory, gleefully makes dirty jokes while slapping men’s behinds. Lt. Quaife (Jen Bosworth) rags on her husband. In some of the play’s best topical humor, Richards (Grace Odumosu), cheers on her activist boyfriend but still can’t help (wo)man spreading across an entire bench, and (wo)man-splaining to the guys about how oppressed they are, all while congratulating herself on being super woke.

In addition to the silliness, OKen offers up a scathing critique of the action genre’s normalization of rape culture. Showing men being treated the way women are typically treated in action plots reveals how reliant the genre is on jokes made at the expense of women, as well as how much of the drama in this genre is generated by women’s victimization and abuse. For instance in one scene, Erica (Kim Boler), in a sinister send-up of a stock bloodthirsty-villain, gets jacked-up on crack whiffits, kills people for fun, then celebrates by raping a man she’s lured into her hideaway. Later she callously brags about it.

The male characters in Fight City employ the usual range of strategies to cope with discrimination, harassment and abuse. Some of them try to brush it off and rise above, some employ subversive humor, others organize and fight back. Weatherfoot (Harrison Weger), the first male PK, patiently puts up with sexist jeers until he gets a chance to prove his moxie, following a classic arc usually assigned to female characters. Eric Frederkison’s performance as Verne, victim turned reluctant activist, reminds us of the serious stakes for men trapped in this system. And Relf, the much abused CCPD secretary, played sensitively by Josh Zagoren, highlights how debasing harassment is for those on the receiving end. It is also Relf, seeking relief from this abuse, and perhaps revenge, that leads him to turn informant for Erica who later rapes him. Oliver appropriately presents this as a frightening and serious moment.

As one might expect, the main attraction of Fight City is its stellar fight choreography. Fight Directors Maureen Yasko and Chris Smith offer up stage combat that’s intense, realistic and bloody. (If you sit in the front you may get splattered.) The fighting style unique to the PKs is also nicely integrated into the plot in a way that both forwards the story and enhances character development. The spectacle of all female fight sequences has potential to be overly sexualized, but Oliver steers clear of this. Her focus is showcasing what women’s bodies are capable of, presenting her characters as subject, not object. Carla McDowell’s costume design well-supports this choice managing to be tastefully futuristic without being fetishistic.

In a season of Chicago theater where the subject of police violence has taken center stage, it’s impossible not to register that, in spite of it’s escapist fun, Fight City is inescapably a play about a bunch of exceedingly violent cops. And while the play doesn’t get too philosophical about the problem of police brutality, it’s at least self-conscious of this fact. When Barb’s mother Margret Davies (Mandy Walsh), legendary for her fighting skills, drops by the department she asks, “Any good kills lately?” Under Margret’s tenure suspects were routinely taken “out back” to have their necks broken. Barb retorts, “We don’t have to do that anymore.” And, although Barb does a lot of head-bashing herself, the play hints she just might be able to restore at least a bit of due process to the system.

Fight City is an entertaining summer show with a strong feminist message and loads of exhilarating fight scenes!

Photos: Michael Courier

Directed by: Jill Oliver
Written by: Scott OKen
Runs from July 21st to August 26th
Fridays/Saturdays 8pm
Sundays 3pm

CAST

Barb Davies – Jennifer Betancourt
Margaret Davies – Mandy Walsh*
Avory – Almanya Narula
Weatherfoot – Harrison Weger
Argent – Ashley Yates
White – Meredith Rae Lyons
Lt. Quaife/Noone – Jen Bosworth
Erica Burdon – Kim Boler*
Valentine – Susan Wingerter
Chandler/Thug – Brittany Ellis
Price/Thug – Megan Schemmel
Verne/Steele – Eric Frederickson
Leo – Jae K. Renfrow
Terry – Linsey Falls*
Relf – Josh Zagoren
Richards – Grace Odumosu
Understudy (Leo/Terry/Verne) – Colin Milroy*
Understudy (Weatherfoot/Relf) – Josh Greiveldinger
Understudy (Steele) – Dan Krall
Understudy (Davies/Avory) – Kim Fukawa
Understudy (Argent/White/Richards) – Josephine Longo
Understudy (Margaret/Valentine) – Elizabeth MacDougald
Understudy (Erica/Lt. Quaife/Noone) – Sara Robinson
Understudy (Chandler/Price/Thugs 1 & 2)– Cory Griffith

CREW

Playwright – Scott OKen*
Director – Jill Oliver*
Assistant Director – Kevin Alves*
Stage Manager – Phil Claudnic*
Assistant Stage Manager – Jermaine Edward Thomas*
Production Manager – Manny Tamayo*
Assistant Production Manager – Greg Caldwell*
Fight Director – Maureen Yasko
Fight Director – Chris Smith
Set Design – Sarah Lewis
Technical Director – Amie Zimmerman
Lighting Design – Emma Deane
Master Electrician – C.W. Van Baale*
Sound Design – Ben Zeman
Costume Design – Carla McDowell
Props Design – Albert Gogetem
Graphic Design – Jason Moody*
Fight Captain  –Mandy Walsh*
Fight Captain – Meredith Rae Lyons
Consultant – Maggie Scrantom
All staged intimacy was professionally designed

*Factory Ensemble Member

BIAS ALERT: Both Brittany Ellis and Ashley Yates have acted in my work in the past and I think they’re both brilliant.

‘Pass Over’ and the Chicago Theatre Aesthetic


By Monty Cole

Let me set the scene.

A couple of weeks ago, Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over opened at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and rocked the city –  folks are still holding on to anything sturdy. Nwandu’s Beckettian take on the plight of the American Black man drops Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker) on a lifted cement street corner in an unnamed city. A street light hangs over them like Waiting for Godot’s infamous tree, and beyond that lies a black void.

The play isn’t easy. Antoinette Nwandu has written fiercely brilliant dialogue saturated with ebonics and “niggas” spun into its vernacular. The word is used so much that the one white character in the play points out his discomfort with the frequency of the word. Now might be a good time to mention that I’m a Black Chicago-based director. Hi.

Pass Over is like nothing Steppenwolf has produced before. The cast includes only one ensemble member: the young, Black and electric Jon Michael Hill. If most of the work by Black playwrights produced at Steppenwolf sounds like Miles Davis or even Frank Ocean, Pass Over has the potential to sometimes sound like Young Thug or Migos (and if you don’t know who those artists are, my point exactly). The play’s story is nebulous and has definite surrealist undertones, the likes of which infrequently occur on Steppenwolf’s stage, and are relatively foreign to Chicago Theatre audiences in general.

The Chicago Theatre criticism roster consists of Chris Jones (Chicago Tribune), Hedy Weiss (Chicago Sun-Times), Kris Vire (TimeOut Chicago), Tony Adler (Chicago Reader) and many, many blogs. I’ve been reading Chris Jones for the Chicago Tribune since I was a freshman in high school almost fifteen years ago. Before I went to school, I’d eat Pop Tarts and read the TEMPO section in the Trib. My parents didn’t get the Chicago Sun-Times.

Hedy Weiss has been the Theater and Dance Critic of the Chicago Sun-Times since 1984 according to the Sun-Times’ website. At this point, her reviews read like Trump tweets — simplistic, unbelievably insensitive, factually wrong, and mostly useless. For many years, the Chicago Theatre community has tried to get her off the job. We’ve tried writing to the editor, but America is more likely to impeach Trump than the Sun-Times is likely to fire Hedy Weiss for a racist review. The difference between the two is while Trump has been saying horribly offensive statements in his job as president for 6 months, Weiss has been doing the same thing for over two decades with no repercussions. Here’s an excerpt from her review of Pass Over.

To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African-Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene. And the playwright’s final scenes — including a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story — and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s  largely white “liberal” audience — further rob the play of its potential impact.

Her work oozes with an ironic ignorance for a woman that writes at a liberal newspaper where I’m sure there are plenty of resources for her to dig a little deeper. (It’s especially ironic because that final monologue she’s referring to is actually aimed at conservative white audiences, but that went over Weiss’ head.) She has a history of reviews like this that are either ignorant or unintelligent and often both. The New York Times covered one of Hedy Weiss’ controversies in an article almost 11 years ago and compiled quotes from various esteemed artists who spoke out against Weiss. This includes Tony Kushner, who she infamously referred to as a “self hating Jew” in her review of his Tony Award winning musical Caroline, or Change. Yeah. That’s one of our top two critics. And the issue is never whether or not artists can tolerate a bad review. Artists receive bad reviews all the time. After reading a Hedy Weiss review I find myself wondering if we even saw the same play. It seems like she willfully ignores how a play is structured and the story it’s trying to tell.

Her work is unbelievably offensive, it spreads negativity about positive work being done in the theatre community, and it affects the artists who work on these new play processes. I keep finding myself wanting to shield the actors on stage at Pass Over. I can’t imagine performing this play every night, exposing parts of yourself, and being met with the negativity and false information spewing from critics like Weiss. By continuing to invite her and use her pull quotes, theatre companies are sending a message that they are complacent to her bigotry. What’s worse (okay maybe not worse) is she doesn’t even sell tickets. Before moving into directing, I was the Communications Manager at Next Theatre Company. I was in charge of marketing, audience services, and graphic design. In my experience, including a Hedy Weiss review on our poster, postcard, web ad, or lobby display did nearly nothing for ticket sales. Her words are not only damaging to artists, but also the audiences who are misguided by her wrongheaded reviews.

The Chicago Theatre Accountability Coalition was formed in response to Weiss’ Pass Over review. Enough was enough. The coalition is organizing artists and producers from all across the city to contact Chicago theater companies, asking them to join the cause and promise they will no longer provide Hedy Weiss with free tickets to their shows. They send out daily tasks to their group members to dismantle a failing system in a peaceful and controlled manner. Weiss is welcome to attend any show she wants to review – so long as she purchases a ticket.  Over 3500 people have signed the petition and over sixty theatre companies have signed. You can find the full petition by clicking here. I can’t stress this enough – my beliefs written here are not at all indicative of this pleasant, honest, and peaceful group.

The Chicago Reader, The Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board, and The Chicago Sun-Times have all come out in support of Weiss. The articles that the media have released thus far omit facts and Weiss’ precedence for offensive reviews to almost shocking degrees. The Sun-Times wrote that they “may have room to grow when it comes to covering the diverse communities we serve, including in the arts. Our promise every day is to continue to do better. We do that, always, in the best of faith.” There’s been no evidence of the Sun-Times making any attempt to “do better” in the past.

For a lot of artists in Chicago, the issue ends here: keep Hedy from receiving free tickets. I’m also in favor of focusing our efforts here. But Hedy’s overt racism is not the full story behind Chicago’s troubled relationship with criticism. Most theatre companies in Chicago have one primary marketing strategy: get a 4-star Chris Jones review. The difference between a 3-star and a 4-star Chris Jones review is the difference between average and packed crowds. Notice I didn’t say a Chicago Tribune review, but specifically a Chris Jones review.

Jones’ review of Pass Over was, I’d say, mostly a rave.

“a very potent and promising play”

“Pass Over works … it lays out in stark and poetic fashion a quotidian urban, American reality that Beckett utterly failed to imagine.”

“Much of the language in the work is thrilling, poetical. Very. So is much of director Danya Taymor’s dynamic staging, which makes exceptional use of the width of the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, sending genuinely disturbing attacks on the psyche across horizontal lines before packing a climactic punch in the vertical. All three of the performances are excellent, a complex trifecta of race, power and authority. To her great credit, Taymor really takes you there, whether or not you care to go.”

The review is one of Jones’ more comprehensive reviews. He identifies specific strengths of the work and displays an understanding of the playwright’s intentions. I would even argue that Chris Jones accurately analyzes the complex race issues that are stirring in the play.

As a critic,  Jones has a set of values and priorities that result in an aesthetic preference. I can not pretend that I know Chris Jones. What I have surmised about Jones from reading him since I was 14, is that he values an honest performance and honestly written characters . He prioritizes stories that are deeply cathartic and filled with pathos. He wants text that feels real to him. And realness must be subtle. It must have verisimilitude. It must be authentic, or at least feel authentic to Chris Jones. These priorities and values are often the backbone of his reviews resulting in a specific aesthetic preference. Steppenwolf’s previous work and a lot of work created by ensembles in the city fall under this aesthetic. Pass Over does not.

In the final paragraph of Jones’ review, he writes:

“I’d argue that this early version of this hugely promising play loses its way in the last third as it layers on so much symbolism that you somehow lose both the work’s crucial, real-time tension and the rich humanity of Moses and Kitch; their initial individuation becomes subsumed…But Nwandu paints these young men with such initially vivid humanity that you miss it when it exits, as you do the hope inherent in characters who know they must leave this place of waiting, this way of being, this life.”

Symbolism is not Chris Jones’ bag. Heavy handedness is not Chris Jones’ preference either. Nwandu’s finale sports both symbolism and heavy handedness with grace. Jones doesn’t like the ending so much so what star rating does the play get? 3 out of 4 stars. Though Jones can see why Nwandu made the choices she made, it wasn’t his preference and so it affected the play’s rating. Jones felt the ending extinguished the humanity in the play’s characters. When I left the theater after Opening Night, I remember saying to my wife that it’s interesting to me that artists of color tend to write and create in a world that doesn’t sit comfortably in realism. I can watch a magical or surrealist moment and it will ring more true than if the moment was played “realistically”. Because what’s “real”? What’s “true”? Is Chris Jones’ truth more important than my truth? I don’t need a critic to tell me how they would tell my story. I’d rather they try to empathize with the way I’m trying to tell it.

Flash back to a year and a couple of months ago when Steppenwolf was producing the world premiere of a new Tracy Letts play titled Mary Page Marlowe. Besides his adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, this would be Letts’ first full length play since his double whammy of August: Osage County and Superior Donuts (both went to Broadway). The play depicts the life of an intentionally unremarkable woman named Mary Page Marlowe. In his review, Jones wrote:

The end of “Mary Page Marlowe” is deeply frustrating.

So much so, in fact, I wondered about the four stars. But my internal debate — as unremarkable as the life of the protagonist — ended when I thought again about the emotional weight of a piece of theater so imbued with love and concern.

And so this relatively realistic play was awarded a 4-star review and here lies the problem.

We hear a question asked again and again when a play like Pass Over drops: how can we make room for people of color in theatre criticism? This is true, valid, and needed, but the issue might be broader than that. Chicago Theatre has a very specific aesthetic: intimate, realistic, honest, ensemble-based, text and performance-based theatre. And although these are values and priorities close to Chris Jones, this is an aesthetic that goes back to when Steppenwolf Theatre operated out of a church basement. This aesthetic reaches back to Gregory Mosher’s early productions of David Mamet at the Goodman Theatre in the 1970s. It’s a proud tradition, but it’s also a trap.

We create plays that we think will attract a Chicago Theatre audience, whatever that means. We think we know what they can handle and what they can’t. We produce plays that we think Chris Jones will enjoy. We say “chicago audiences” in artistic and marketing meetings but we’re really saying Chris Jones. We are inspired by Chicago productions before us and artists working with us and we don’t look outside of the city that much. Our work is intimate, small and intentionally claustrophobic. We produce plays that are socially relevant. These plays are allowed to ask a question, but never venture to give an answer. If you give an answer, you’re being preachy and not subtle which are the two worst things you could be. Instead, you better have 5 characters in a room that all have different perspectives that are equally valid trying to answer one question. Argument escalates, climax, denouement. We tell Chicago stories. We lead with our actors and playwrights. We shy away from devised theatre. Experimental Theatre? What’s that? We stay here, we keep our heads down, and we do the work. When something adventurous comes into town, we get inspired, maybe we steal something small, and we go back to our aesthetic again. I am comfortable saying that as a white man, Chris Jones cannot have the same priorities that I do as to how Pass Over’s story is told. In a broader sense, Chris Jones is a realist, and therefore doesn’t have the same priorities that I do as to how Pass Over’s story is told. He can forgive a realistic play’s frustrating ending, but won’t penetrate a surrealist play’s ending. Your perspective is built upon what you’re willing to forgive. This isn’t a petty complaint over a single star. I’m asking the question: are we letting our critics dictate the type of stories we tell and how we tell them? Do we keep our adventurous ideas away from Chicago audiences and our intelligent ideas from Chicago bloggers?

As evidenced by Weiss and Jones’ reviews, who’s allowed to have a successful production in Chicago isn’t necessarily only an alleged race problem, it involves anyone that wants to try something risky on stage as Nwandu has done here. Believe me, I’ve been deeply offended by overt and “well meaning” racism across Chicago theatre criticism. Critics and media companies almost never apologize for it. It’s easy to point out and it affects the work that is programmed. I’ve also seen strange play after play fail in Chicago and succeed elsewhere. At this point, Chicago audiences really might not be trained for experimental work because of how ill-equipped our critics are at covering that material. Though I wouldn’t call it “experimental”, Pass Over was a risk for Steppenwolf. Chris’ review broke my heart more than Weiss’. I expect a racist review from Weiss. I saw it from a mile away. This isn’t nearly the first time I’ve been disappointed with how Jones has watched a play. I’ve read that review in response to that type of work too many times to not notice a pattern – and I’m not the only one. I’ve talked to directors outside of the city who direct wonderfully successful productions elsewhere and won’t step foot in Chicago for this exact reason. As a producer, I’ve worked for companies that are too intimidated by Jones’ preferences to produce adventurous work. I actually think Jones is still an excellent writer, one of the best in the country. I think he writes from an honest and authentic place. He writes from his truth. But I wish he would display an ability to appreciate work outside of his preferred aesthetic and see someone else’s truth. I think it’s hurting our city.

Here’s the thing: I think part of Chris Jones knows all of this. Even today, he wrote up a defensive editorial responding to a lecture he had heard recently from Steven Tepper, dean of the Arizona State University Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. The article explains how young artists and audiences expect different responsibilities from their critics. The piece reports upon the recent trend of holding artists, producers and critics accountable for their words and actions. Jones comments that he took his 12 year old son to see Pass Over who immediately told his father that he needs to watch what he says in his review. Jones writes, “…what my 12-year-old immediately grasped that I did not, and what the events that played out later suggests, is that reviews now are different kinds of battlefields. Who is writing them is just as important – perhaps more important – than what is being reviewed. The old agreement, that the critic should de-emphasize self in deference to the artwork and a presumed diversity of readership, has fallen apart.” He understands the problem, but maybe what his 12 year old and the younger generations understand is… there is no de-emphasizing the self. Jones can’t help but write his reviews through the lens of his experiences. What he believes is honesty, truth, and authenticity will always be present in his work no matter how much he feels it is “de-emphasized.”

I don’t like articles that simply state the problem and don’t provide solutions so here’s some thoughts. The responsibility to evolve the work that Chicago produces and to widen the Chicago Theatre aesthetic is in our hands.

  1. Don’t invite Hedy Weiss to your opening nights. Plain and simple. Don’t do it. There’s no reason to be complicit in her bigotry.
  2. The Chicago Tribune hires a few critics to write their reviews. In the print newspaper and on their website, they include a section called Chris Jones Recommends showing the highest rated plays in Chicago. This omits any 3-4 star reviews from Kerry Reid and Nina Metz who cover the more adventurous theatre in Chicago. This section should change to the Theater Loop Recommends to include all of the excellent theatre in Chicago and not just the work Jones covers. Based on the current structure of the Tribune website, it seems as though the two female critics’ opinions are considered not to hold the same weight as Jones’ recommendations.
  3. At the very least, the Chicago Tribune needs to provide more freelance opportunities to fill out the diversity holes in their writing staff.
  4. Support Rescripted, a diverse and “artist-led interactive commentary on the state of the arts, including reviews, dialogues, and essays.” Invite them to your shows and use their reviews for your pull quotes.
  5. Make the theatre that inspires you. Make the passion project that feels out of this world. Produce theatre that feels bigger than Chicago’s critics. Produce theatre that feels so ambitious that it has the potential to go viral. And don’t settle. Excitement is contagious. There are so many types of theatre that don’t exist in Chicago. Produce for a reason.

When I was in college, I used to gush about Chicago theatre. I would say the best theatre in the country was in Chicago. I would say there was a great variety of theatre in Chicago. I would say if there was going to be a theatre revolution in America it would be in Chicago. When I got back here, I realized that this great variety that I spoke about was based on a select few companies in this city (still around) that provide something truly unique. I started to read Jones’ work because my parents took me to Chicago Theatre when I was 13. Sometimes when I see work in our beautiful city it feels like I’m traveling back in time. Sometimes it feels like nothing has changed — and not in a good way. Sometimes it feels like we’ve passed the same toolbox down from generation to generation and therefore our work looks exactly the same as it did then. I still believe Chicago can have that variety and that we can have a diversity of voices and styles on our stage. We have to dare to evolve — despite our critics.

 

(Production Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow)

Love and Talent Burn Fiercely in ‘Bright Half Life’

(Photo Copyright: Michael Brosilow)

By Regina Victor

Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre directed by Kiera Fromm is an elegant exploration of queer love and the quirks of relationships. A two-person play penned by Tanya Barfield, Bright Half Life centers around the intertwined lives of two women, Erica (Elizabeth Ledo) and Vicky (Patrese D. McClain). The play jumps back and forth through time to tell us the story of Vicky and Erica’s decades long love affair, from their first encounter at the job where Vicky is the only black female supervisor, to the marriages of their children. Fromm’s direction and Barfield’s sequence of events made it clear from the beginning that this love would be complicated and messy, that it would end and perhaps begin again. But whether or not they see a happy ending almost doesn’t matter. Bright Half Life  believes that it’s not about the result, it’s about the journey.

The play is non-linear, and often returns to moments from previous scenes, letting the audience discover new meanings and subtext to previously seen conversations as the new information about Vicky and Erica’s relationship comes to light. This could have been very confusing, but the design world gave the audience a clear roadmap to understanding the timelines. As they hurdled through time and space on William Boles’ angular and precise set, they only used two chairs and their bodies to set each scene, letting Christopher Kriz’s sound design guide the audience. This guidance is surprisingly subtle, you barely register the change of sound but rather sense the change of feeling. Kriz takes us from a Ferris wheel, to a hospital, to a conventional workplace, and more with a delicate clarity.

The lighting, designed by Christine Binder, consisted of ethereal side light, tight spot lights, beautiful overhead panels, and was used to tighten the focus of time and space. One particularly effective device was the use of a tight spot on a single actor’s face as she said something that at first seemed jarringly out of place in the scene. Then, as she would turn to her girlfriend and continue with her thought, it became clear that those moments in the light represented the actor’s internal monologue. This action informed the rest of the scene fabulously, utilizing an age old theatrical device in a fresh new way: letting an audience in on a juicy secret that only they know.  

What I truly loved about this show was the simplicity of the theatrical devices used, to an ingenious extent. Melissa Ng’s costume design was effortlessly able to scale 20+ years of a lifetime without either character leaving the stage. The secret? Layering. It is easy to muddy up a production like this trying to be cool or fancy, dazzling an audience with all the tricks available in 21st century theater,  but here the simplicity of the design and direction allowed these two stunning actors to shine.

 Actor Elizabeth Ledo as Erica comes out of the gate with such an infectious warmth that it makes you wonder how Vicky could possibly resist. Plaid-rocking Ledo is a crowd pleaser, and manages to infuse even Erica’s most infuriating moments with a helpless charm, invoking a beautifully tragic lesbian Hamlet. Patrese D. McLain has a tough job playing the  graceful but reserved Vicky, but when the walls come down and we do finally see her loving tendencies, the payoff is emotionally stunning and surprisingly playful.

The play focuses on the intimate dynamics that are found in many relationships. Certain arguments will feel painfully familiar, depending on your own lived experiences. After the show, each person I spoke to could point to a different moment in the play and say “my partner does that!”  It’s filled with the moments that build a relationship and slowly chip it away, the overarching question occurring over and over: would you do it again?      

On a personal note, I must discuss the social relevance of this play for me as a queer person of color and theatre artist. The play alludes to various time periods and stretches over decades as I previously mentioned, but the reference that caught my ear was to queer life in the early 2000s. Whenever marriage is discussed it is accompanied by a necessary trip to Massachussetts (gay marriage law was passed there in 2004), which struck an important chord for me.

I  felt incredibly inspired seeing a woman onstage who looked like me, playing a lesbian in an interracial relationship with children, discussing the hard truths about the difficulties of understanding cultural bridges. At one point, Vicky is discussing her own racial history and having been called an “oreo” in her past – a disrespectful term intended to imply one is black on the outside, and white on the inside. Erica has to stop and realize that though she lacks privilege as a white gay woman, she doesn’t in fact understand everything about Vicky’s identity as a black woman, and asks to be taught about her whiteness. It’s a touching moment of connection onstage in a world that feels so divided.

A timeless and compelling script, I recommend Bright Half Life for anyone wanting to see progressive LGBTQ+ theatre written by a black queer femme. About Face is one of the only companies where I can see queer, happy, healthy relationships portrayed without ever being the punchline or tragic figures. It is important that we get to see ourselves as the heroes and lovers, and About Face’s mission of portraying LGBTQ theatre is both necessary and commendable.

——-

Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre runs through July 1st, find more information here: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Erica: Elizabeth Ledo

Vicky: Patrese D. McClain

Understudy for Erica: Pamela Mae Davis

Understudy for Vicky: Demetria Thomas

Playwright: Tanya Barfield

Director: Kiera Fromm

Set Designer: William Boles

Lighting Designer: Christine Binder

Sound Designer: Christopher Kriz

Costume Designer: Melissa Ng

Props Designer: Vivian Knouse

Stage Manager: Helen Colleen Lattyak

Associate Lighting Designer: Bailey Rosa

Asst. Stage Manager: Gabriella Welsh

Asst. Director: Lauren Katz

Casting: Kiera Fromm & Alex Weisman

Production Manager: Alex Rhyan

Tech Director: Andrew Glasenhart

Master Electrician: Kristof Janezic

Scenic Painter: Jessica Howe