It was a dark and not-so-stormy night. A night desperate for deception. Without a cloud in the sky, I turned to a different kind of cumulonimbus: a sound cloud. I hit play on Theatre in the Dark’s A Matter of Red Herrings and found myself in the streets of a rainy 1920s Chicago. This 80-minute audio play by Greg Garrison harkens back to the crime novels that set the standard for fiction’s greatest detectives. Directed by Corey Bradberry, A Matter of Red Herrings cheerfully introduces Detective Stainless Steal to a prestigious line of fictional Chicago sleuths.
Nikki Lynnette describes herself as a “possibility model,” rather than a role model, in her autobiographical afrogoth punk-pop musical Get Out Alive. Lynette, an acclaimed hip-hop artist, shares her life story and recounts past suicide attempts, psychiatric institutionalization, her mom’s battle with cancer, and how she made it out alive. This musical is part memorial, part memoir, and part indie concert. The show features live performance mixed with engaging video testimonies and dynamic projections designed by Chris Owens.
Within the Bookspan lobby at the Den Theatre, Haven’s producers curate a punk rock memorial space for the loved ones we have lost and the parts of our own selves in need of healing. Statistics plaster one wall reading “Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide,” and “Nearly 50 million Americans have mental health issues.” Another wall has the prompt “I get out alive by…” Markers are laid out for audience response, and you can peruse a bountiful list of self-care tips already written by previous attendees. A table is stacked with resources for those suffering from depression and/or thoughts of suicide.
In the wake of Ken-Matt Martin, Eric Ting, and my own resignation from Sideshow Theatre on July 20, 2022, I reflect on the path that led us here. I have not spoken to either of these leaders, and the thoughts and patterns represented are entirely my own unless directly quoted from other publications. This is a two-part essay. The first, “The Fixer: Artistic Directors of Color and Pandemic Leadership,” outlines the institutional and systemic barriers Artistic Directors who are people of color face in this time. This piece outlines the victories these leaders have had, and is an offering for how to create success for incoming Artistic Directors who come from under-represented communities.
This week, three Artistic Directors of color announced their intent to resign from their institutions. Ken-Matt Martin at Victory Gardens, Eric Ting at California Shakespeare Theatre, and myself at Sideshow Theatre Company. Each of us resigned for very different reasons. Inclusive, exciting work has been happening at all of these companies, and continues to happen under the tenure of leaders of color across the nation. It is essential to celebrate the successes these leaders had, discern what systemic obstacles to success are in place, and think of solutions that can provide ease to future leaders.
Not every resignation is or will be a point of pain. Sometimes they are necessary evolution for the artist and the company.
In the wake of Ken-Matt Martin, Eric Ting, and my own resignation from Sideshow Theatre on July 20th, 2022, I reflect on the path that led us here. I have not spoken to either of these leaders, and the thoughts and patterns represented are entirely my own unless directly quoted from other publications. This is a two-part essay, the first of which outlines the struggles Artistic Directors who are people of color face during pandemic leadership. The second, Resigning as Renewal: Visions for Artistic Leaders of Color outlines the victories leaders of color have had, and visions for how to create more opportunity for their success.
We need to talk about the stress, institutional disposability, and institutional obligation put upon artists of color. Leaders of color create so much wealth and abundance in the face of chaos, but when are we asking too much? The combination of non-profit infrastructure and a pandemic has created a loss of agency, a “fixer” dynamic, and prevented many from manifesting the vision they intended.
To the Victory Gardens Board of Directors:
We, the past, present and future resident companies at Victory Gardens, are writing to express our frustration at the lack of clarity, transparency, and generosity given to Victory Gardens’ Staff and Resident artists. We stand in solidarity with Ken-Matt Martin, the Resident Artists , and staff members of Victory Gardens’ Theatre. We are equally troubled by this board’s lack of leadership, and even more troubled by its pattern of blatant and ongoing disrespect towards Roxanna and Ken-Matt, and the repeated dismissal of the Playwright’s Ensemble and staff.
In a world where women’s rights are under attack, it struck me as peculiar to witness a story about a white woman who in spite of all her wealth and privilege, found time to complain. . . a lot. In a country where 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump, it also struck me as peculiar to witness a story about a white woman who feels paralyzed within the comforts of her gilded patriarchy. Luckily, no one masters the peculiar quite like Terry Guest.
The Story Theatre, in its second season, has mounted a theatrical feast with Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes. Written and directed by resident playwright Terry Guest, the play chronicles the life and eventual demise of the last queen of France. The production features an ensemble of mostly black actors (sans the two who play Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI) and begins with the façade of a boarded up storefront with the words “This is not history” written broadly across the wall. While this image alludes to days of civil unrest past and present, it functions mainly as an omen that Guest will not be exploring history verbatim, but expanding upon the ripples that provoke the waves of change throughout history. Though much of the action of the play takes place in France from 1774 to 1793, it wouldn’t be a Terry Guest production without transcending time and space. Marie Antoinette explores the continuum of political resistance by taking us to New Orleans, Haiti, Chicago, and even Texas; anywhere where violence and resistance have mingled to create radical change.
Written by Chicago playwright and actor Omer Abbas Salem, The Secretaries is a funny and subversive farce set in a parallel universe’s Nazi Germany. Salem (he/they) is a well known Chicago actor and one of our city’s most exciting emerging playwrights. While The Secretaires is their first true in-person production, Salem’s work has been developed at the Goodman, Jackalope, Steppenwolf, National Queer Theater, and The New Coordinates.
The theatre canon is filled with stories about the Holocaust and, from Cabaret to Sound of Music, big musical numbers about mass genocide. Salem’s script, with its creative alterations to history, offers audiences something new and provocative. This play’s four dynamic characters, outfitted in Aryan Drag, struggle through their time employed as Secretaries at “Hiller’s Office of Mysteries.” Yes, Hiller, not Hitler.
While I knew to some degree that In Every Generation would be covering topics of Jewish oppression and trauma, I didn’t anticipate that it would poke and prod at me in such a genuinely unsettling way. In the opening scene, the youngest member of the family is made to sing the usually-sung-by-children Four Questions song despite being a full adult, an awkward moment made doubly so when she forgets the words. As a former Passover baby myself I was able to mouth along perfectly, barely restraining myself from shouting “It’s ‘Anu matbillin!’” when the character messed up — and from that point forward, I was inextricably drawn in.
In Every Generation at Victory Gardens Theatre is defined by this discomfort; that first awkward moment kicks off a harrowing fictional Passover seder where the Levi-Katz family is made to confront their myriad dysfunctions in such a way that leads both the family and the audience to consider fundamental questions about Jewish identity. While the show succeeds tremendously as a moving family drama that examines both the deeply personal and the urgently political, I found myself off-put by some of its philosophical conclusions. Perhaps that is the point.
Once Upon a Mattress is a 1959 musical comedy that presents a goofy reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” It tells the love story between the adorably awkward (and misleadingly named) Prince Dauntless and the bombastic Princess Winnifred (or Fred to her friends), buoyed by a supporting cast of royals, nobles, and courtiers embroiled in various scandals, japes, and shenanigans. Being a comedy from the 50’s that covers topics of love and marriage, it’s no surprise that Once Upon a Mattress leans heavily on some outdated and reductive gender roles for its laughs. The smart way around this, which director Landree Fleming has employed to hilarious effect, is to lampoon and subvert those roles at every turn — primarily by showcasing a cast that is visibly and joyfully trans, non-binary, and queer.
In the Appalachian town of Williamson, West Virginia, jobs are scarce and opioids are plentiful. Spay, a new play by Madison Fiedler, focuses on one Williamson family’s struggle with addiction at the height of the opioid epidemic. Sisters Harper and Noah Attridge, played by Krystel McNeil and Rae Gray respectively, are together again under the same roof after Noah’s public overdose at a youth baseball game. Over the course of one sober and sobering week, temptations come knocking at the door with the promise of relief. But at what cost? Rivendell Theatre’s world premiere production, directed by Georgette Verdin, is the promising introduction of a stellar script that deserves consideration from any theatre company currently planning their next season.