#LEMONADE #blackgirlmagic

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Written by Preston Choi, Literary & Public Programs Assistant

The King of Cups. The Six of Pentacles. The Page of Swords.
From these three tarot cards Jasmine Barber divines that a giving and taking is in order.
This is true not just for the person getting their cards read, but for the Victory Garden’s lobby as a whole.

On Thursday June 30th, #Lemonade, a celebration of black girl magic took place at Victory Gardens. The lobby swelled with audience members and artists, creators and witnesses side by side. The painting pictured above began at the start of the evening as an outline in the sketchbook of Tita Thomas, but as the event began to gather steam, so did her painting. Paint smeared, water poured, and by the end of the night a blank canvas became a dialogue between Beyonce’s album and and the women artist’s work being done in the theater.

At a nearby table Jasmine Barber read people’s cards, tarot cards. A form of divination dating back hundreds of years, for the purposes of guidance and understanding. She mutters the inquirer’s question under her breath as she shuffles the cards before she reveals them to her eager audience. Not too far away, up a flight of stairs, another spiritual service was being provided. Angelique Nelson gave Reiki massages, quietly away from the crowd. The Reiki healing technique involves the channeling of energy into the patient by means of touch, to activate natural healing processes.

As black girl magic was seen and felt, so was it heard. The first to the mic was Ireon Roach, First Place in the 2016 August Wilson Monologue Competition, who in 30 minutes that day, had created a spoken word piece for the evening titled ‘Speak’. “This energy doesn’t come easy,” a simple yet powerful phrase, one of many within her stream of consciousness.

Kristiana Rae Colón performed after; Colón recently had her play “florissant & canfield” in VG’s reading series. Among her words, a quote, ‘just because we’re not magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real’. An echo to the recent speech given by Jesse Williams at the BET awards. While Ireon’s words spoke from the world of young women, Kristiana spoke from the experience of a grown woman; A slow burning bonfire in contrast to the verbal spitfire fireworks.

The night ended in song and call and response led by Kiara Lanier. The music began and she started barefoot, taking out her birth control pills and leaving them behind in a pile of dirt. Then grabbing the mic her voice serenaded the room, calling on them to speak with her, sing with her. A clap rhythm began and all energy focused in, together.

The song came to a close, the last cards were shuffled, and with the painting finished, The House That Will Not Stand was ready to begin. From the contemporary to the historical, #blackgirlmagic is alive and thriving and beautiful.

TOWN HALL: CASTING NOTICE

A community gathering on race & casting
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Watch the Facebook Live videos: https://www.facebook.com/victorygardens/
Follow our Twitter: @victorygardens or with the hashtag #castingnotice

Last night, Victory Gardens Theater hosted a Town Hall conversation centering on race and casting attended by 250 artists and arts leaders in the Chicago community that began with a panel conversation before opening the floor as an open forum for asking hard questions and sharing best practices and actionable takeaways.

Our panel consisted of moderator Morgan Greene (Chicago Tribune), Monty Cole (Artistic Programs Manager, Victory Gardens Theater), Emjoy Gavino (Founder and Producer, The Chicago Inclusion Project), Bear Bellinger (Performer, Activist), Adam Belcuore (Associate Producer and Director of Casting, Goodman Theatre), and Sandra Delgado (Actor, Playwright and member of the Alliance of Latino Theater Artists in Chicago).

This journey is a long one and we are thankful for our community and their willingness to share thoughts and engage in this necessary conversation. The following is a transcript of last night’s conversation in four sections:
1. How do we define casting?
2. What are some problematic and effective practices?
3. Short term solutions for improving the system?
4. Open questions and responses from artists present.

How do you define the act of casting:

  • Adam: For me casting is a design profession…that you have an opportunity to design a vision…to find the resources to help tell the story. It’s a collaborative field, and you can bring a creative and thoughtful and responsible approach to that, but I think it’s a design profession, much like your set, lights…
  • Monty: Casting is like…imagining a bunch of alternate universes…in which each actor that comes in could be that part, could be the lead, could be the supporting role, whatever… and depending on everyone on the team, the ultimate production will be the manifestation of one of those universes.
  • Bear: I almost think of casting as gatekeepers – who decides who gets in the room even in the first place. That lens is powerful but we don’t talk about it often enough.
  • Emjoy: Casting is the liaison between director and people you’re ushering into the production. Most often I think of myself as an advocate.
  • Sandra: Casting for me is being part of a small theatre company…for twenty years, and when I first branched out of Collaboraction I realized I…was in this Latina box. Casting is getting a call from a theatre company you’ve wanted to work with forever and they say, ‘We’re doing a farce’ and you saying, ‘Ooh wow I’ve never done a farce before!’ and them saying, ‘We’re thinking of going Latina with the maid’ and you saying, ‘No…’”

Problematic and Effective Practices:

  • Bear: I will read the entirety of every script I’m called in for to know the context and whether I feel comfortable being true to that story. We all love the idea that we can all play any role but the stage picture itself matters, especially in representing other cultures.
  • Monty: Each company should have its own set of values. When a company doesn’t have diversity in their mission, it’s reflected in their production history. There needs to be an initial conversation between playwright/director/AD and then the casting director gets to work.
  • Sandra: There is a brainwashing that white is the default. There’s an assumption that characters listed in cast breakdowns without a specific ethnicity are white. What I’d like to see is what’s in our DNA – making theatre a reflection of the world I see when I walk outside.
  • Monty: When is it right for white people to be in the play? When is it problematic for people of color to be in it? What helps the story?
  • Emjoy: I ask the director: “How diverse can we be? How fixed are you on this, this, and this? For example, these people have to be 24, these people have to look related. But nothing else is mandatory. That opens up a whole world.
  • Bear: There are some shows that are going to be white shows, and that has to be something we have to be okay with, and we have to say, ‘Okay, what else can we do now?’
  • Adam: Where is our unconscious bias? We need to be challenging our initial vision whenever possible, to see if it’s rooted in a set of assumptions that are antiquated. This needs to be talked about beyond the theater. When we’re at the bar having cocktails, can we talk about race? Can we talk about representation? I took a workshop on unconscious bias. That’s a helpful thing to learn about yourself!

Short-term solutions to improving the system:

  • Emjoy: What are the stories you’re telling, and how inclusive can that be? That’s the number one thing.
  • Bear: Who are the people in that room making those decisions? If you’re looking at your staff or your ensemble and it’s a bunch of white guys, there’s something wrong.
  • Monty: How do we find and support artists within the disability community? It’s amazing how little we know about the talent, and how hard it is to get the resources to find the talent.
  • Emjoy: We’re so fragmented that we don’t even know how to get to the artists, and they don’t know if we’re looking for them. If there are literally no people in this enormous city, in the country, then maybe look outside that community.
  • Monty: If you don’t have someone who can play the central role, don’t program that play. How properly are you representing this community by not doing it right?
  • Bear: Maybe we didn’t find someone with cerebral palsy to play that role, but then what are you doing to foster connections with that community? There should be at least one person in the room.
  • Sandra: You have to create your own content. A lot of institutions are just waking up, and they didn’t realize they were asleep.
  • Bear: The idea of starting a Minority Actor Database was that we all have people calling us saying, ‘Oh, I’m looking for an actress of this minority, of this race or background so we wanted to start a database of self-identification and let people opt-in to whatever they feel comfortable identifying as. Then we can use this to share with folks looking for these actors.
  • Bear: You self-identify…in a multiplicity of ways and then it gets filtered into a spreadsheet. Then casting directors and other folks can email chicagoaoc@gmail.com with what they’re looking for.
  • Emjoy: It’s more than just looking at an actor’s last name and thinking that maybe they’re of a certain race.
  • Bear: I’d say we are reflecting our future, not our past.
  • Adam: Casting isn’t the solution, necessarily…There’s diversity needed on many levels.

Open questions and responses from artists present:

  • Audience member to Sandra Delgado: Through Actor’s Equity EEO & Diversity committee, what are they doing to increase actual opportunities for actors of color other than one meaningless clause?
    • Sandra: Not enough. Hosting Shakespeare workshops, meet and greets with casting directors. We know the theaters that are behind the times. That’s something we’re working on.
  • Audience member: It’s not about authenticity, it’s about color. The first American I ever played was a month ago at the Goodman. And I’m an American. What the goal for a lot of people of color…is not when you’re looking for an Indian guy you look in a database and find him…but when you need a guy who’s in his late twenties who just graduated from law school, that’s when we get called in. I want to get called in, and I don’t. And when it says Boyfriend, there are people in wheelchairs who are boyfriends. I was told I couldn’t audition for a play because they were only seeing Americans.
  • Audience member: But who is listening to the story? Who’s actively being mined and bussed into the audience?”
  • Audience member: We’re in the business of telling stories. You need to be able to tell those stories that are underrepresented.
  • Audience member: Advice to underrepresented artists who break ground in first production?
    • Emjoy: Stay strong.
    • Bear: Don’t be afraid to speak up. You have to find your people.
    • Monty: Lead by example.
    • Emjoy: To show that it’s possible for people who don’t know that it’s possible.
  • Audience member: I’ve been ten years in the game wondering what is my identity because so much of it has been hoisted on me. I am not just these surface labels and I had to decide that for myself and stand by it.
  • Audience member: There is also importance of mentoring. You can be a dark brown girl with natural hair and be a lover.
  • Bear: Keep growing your community. If I see another person of color at an audition who I don’t know, I’m going up and introducing myself.
  • Audience member: I keep asking myself, I don’t wanna be the difficult one, I don’t wanna talk out loud. You wanna do your artistry, but you can’t. If you wanna know about a Latino playwright, go to their plays! Support smaller theater companies who’ve been doing this work for years. We need to be seeing each other’s plays.
  • Bear: We can continue to be the marketing team. On supporting work that’s doing it right. Word of mouth matters.

The conversation around race and casting is ongoing. As with everything else, possible outcomes are determined on an individual basis and in providing this platform for artists to share, discuss, and question the role they play in the casting process, we hope individual artists will continue the dialogue and lead charges and initiatives that will bring us closer to a more equitable state in casting and beyond.

Imperative Ephemera

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(Left to Right) Cast Members Kelli Simpkins, Patrese D. McClain, and Mike Tepeli
Written by Bea Cordelia, Literary & Public Programs Intern

Well, it was an excellent turnout Thursday night at Backstage at the Biograph: Breathing Life into a New Play—a free sneak peek into the rehearsal process of the world premiere of Sarah Gubbins’ electrifying new play Cocked.  The moment before, the actors joked with each other in the corner, bubbling with excitement, as various Victory Gardens staff members scrambled to pack more than fifty chairs into the rehearsal room.  Cocked Dramaturg and VG Literary Manager Isaac Gomez introduced the event, and Cocked Director and VG Associate Artistic Producer Joanie Schultz set the stage.

Then: the performance.

Or better: the rehearsal.  There were still a full seven days before Cocked went into previews, and another fifteen until opening night.  Sarah had still been feverishly editing the script, churning out new pages in the middle of rehearsals, and would continue to do so after this particular evening, meaning even the following here-publicized excerpt of the play was not guaranteed immunity.  Of course, theater practitioners practicing what they do—the realization of their art never quite existing in the same way more than once, the deep melancholy of taking bows after the final performance of any given production—the Cocked cast was no stranger to ephemera.

In Scene 2 of the play, corporate attorney Taylor and her ex-con brother Frank bicker like children over his unwelcome and unanticipated presence in her home, leaving Taylor’s crime beat reporter girlfriend Izzie to feebly mediate between the two.  At once politically sharp and delightfully biting, the scene quickly had the audience in stitches.

Isaac started the panel conversation, asking how the actors would essentialize the play.

“It’s not a gun play,” Mike Tepelli, playing Frank, began, in response to the popular misconception of the show.  “It raises a lot of questions about what it feels like to be safe in modern America, and what it feels like to be lonely.”

“It is a play about armor, in many ways, about protection…and about weapons being at the epicenter of our relationships,” Kelli Simpkins, playing Taylor, followed.

Sarah Gubbins had some larger theoretical thoughts about the piece:

“…I’m very interested in the idea of the materiality of thought, the materiality of belief, the ways in which our emotional truths, the tenets of how we ought to believe in the world—those are intangible, but I do believe those thoughts can gain materiality in the world… There is a physical ramification to thinking differently.”

Patrese D. McClain, playing Izzie, suggested, “When circumstances and people collide we ask, Are those our boundaries, or are those what we’ve been conditioned to think?

Sarah began writing Cocked in 2012; the world was a different place then.  The infamous Aurora movie theater and Newtown elementary school shootings both took place in 2012, but since then we’ve seen the explosion of activism around Black Lives Matter and confronting police brutality, harrowing video footage of too many executions, more rampant Islamophobia than ever, the continued genocide of trans women of color, and the list goes on.  In a country that boasts its valuation of individuality, the United States has become a veritable battleground for those who are different.

“I believe in the power of thought to change society,” said Sarah. “I have no assumption of improving the city, or the theater district.  I would love, and humbly so, if audience came to this, and really sat with this—sat with the performances, and sat with the beautiful thoughtful design, and sat with the integrity of the direction—and walked around with them.”

True to her words, it has been an enormously collaborative process.  In fact, the majority of the rehearsal room has been in it for the long haul: Joanie and Kelli first became acquainted with the play at its inception, and Patrese in November for a workshop reading of it.

“You have a trust, and it really helps to check the panic and terror,” added Sarah on her relationship with the actors.

“As an actor, the trust is so important for you to expose yourself for you to get to your best work,” replied Patrese. “Sometimes things are ugly, and that’s okay.”

Kelli referred to bringing a world premiere to the stage as “a gift and an honor.”

And in the context of premiering a play so engaged in gender, race, and class politics—and at a theater acting “in direct response to what’s happening in the world,” as Isaac asserted, Victory Gardens can truly “change the world one play at a time.”

It is not easy work, but VG “tries to cultivate an audience who want to invest themselves in the risky work that we do,” Joanie stressed.

Based on the audience size Thursday night, the work is well underway.

Catch Cocked February 12th through March 13th.

BLUR THE LINES

An interview with dancer Kris Lenzo
Conducted by Producing Intern C. Hano

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CH: What was it like to make the transition from an athlete to a dancer?
KL: It was exciting, it was a big change, and I didn’t really follow dance or watch dance before that. Once I started to perform myself I watched more dance and really enjoyed it.

CH: Can you tell us about the pieces we’ll be seeing at RIPPED?
KL: One piece is called “Passage Hawk,” and it was choreographed by Jim Morrow. We had both been in a piece together the year before, and the choreographer kept referring to “stand up dancers” and “wheelchair dancers.” “Wheelchair dancers over here, and stand up dancers over here.” It kind of bothered him the way he separated us, separated the two groups. So he wanted to make a piece where the lines defining those two types of dancers were blurred. It was really fun making it, we just kind of played around and included the chair as more of an apparatus and less of a chair. We never really use it as a wheelchair in the piece.

CH: How did it feel to have your daughter make a short film about you?
KL: I talked about a lot of things I haven’t talked about in a long time. It was fun to think back and revisit my past and think about how things were at different times and remember the process of getting a disability. I was remembering kind of physically getting used to a disability and psychologically getting used to a disability. I enjoyed it.

CH: How do you begin to choreograph a piece? What’s your process?
KL: It kind of varies, like sometimes I’ll have a song in mind and I’ll want to do something to the song. Sometimes I’ll do contact improv dancing and I’ll just get ideas of different movement from that. I’ll start moving in ways that I haven’t thought of and decide that I want to incorporate that into a dance.

CH: How did you come to work with fellow dancers, Anita Fillmore Kenney and Linda Mastandrea? What are they like to work with?
KL: Well I was dancing with Momenta, and Anita has been a part of Momenta for a long time. The first year I was with them she was dancing and then she went away to grad school for the next two years. When she came back, we wanted to do a duet together and we did Tango #4 by Sarah Najera. We did that in the Fall of ’06 and I really enjoyed working with her so we decided to collaborate and make a piece together the next year. We’ve been dancing together since then pretty regularly. And Linda, she had come to a concert at Counter Balance at Access Living, a dance series that Ginger Lane puts on. Linda was thinking about getting into dance and Ginger encouraged her. We did a duet that Ginger choreographed and we’ve been dancing together since then.

CH: What inspired your piece where you dismantle your wheelchair?
KL: I guess the moment of inspiration was to draw the line between the so called “wheelchair dancer,” and so called “stand up dancer.” The other [piece of inspiration] was to kind of look at things from different perspectives. That might be more my motivation and my storyline. I’m not sure if that was part of Ginger’s thinking. She’s really the choreographer and I had a lot of influence on the collaboration process.

CH: Do you feel like your art, your dancing, has changed over time?
KL: Yeah, I think I’ve just been exposed to more dances, to different types of choreographers, and I keep pulling ideas from them. Or I’ll work with someone who’s asking me to move in a way I haven’t moved before and I haven’t thought of moving that way before, I might incorporate that style. I guess what I’ve changed over the years, I’ve stolen from them.

CH: Do you have any advice for performing artists with limited mobility?
KL: I guess it would be keep trying new things, new ways of performing, and ask for feedback from artists who’s work to enjoy. Sometimes you could really be on the verge of something, but you just need somebody else to show you where you’re going. And just put the time in, stay healthy. Try to develop strength and mobility so you have more options. If that’s an option, if mobility can be developed.

CH: Thank you so much. I can’t wait to see your performance.
KL: Thank you.

Kris Lenzo performs at Victory Gardens Theater on January 17th. Click here for more information.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: The Intersection of Art & Religion

From left to right: Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Dr. Seema Imam (panelist) and Rohina Malik (panelist) explore the complexities around women and Islam.

From left to right:
Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Dr. Seema Imam (panelist) and Rohina Malik (panelist) explore the complexities around women and Islam.

Written by Talia Weingarten, Literary and Public Programs Intern

Following our Sunday matinee of “The Who and The What,”  Victory Gardens was fortunate enough to be joined by Rohina Malik and Dr. Seema Imam for “The Eyes Have It,” a town hall that explored the challenges and empowerment that stem from the wearing the veil by Muslim women, particularly in the context of Western society.

Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who and The What” paints a complicated portrait of what it means to be a woman in Islam. He grants the audience access into this commonly foreign conversation through universally accessible themes of family, loyalty, and religious exploration. Throughout main character Zarina’s journey to reconcile her religious devotion with her female empowerment, the veil is oftentimes portrayed as an oppressive garment rather than an empowering one. While the portrait Akhtar, along with director Ron OJ Parson and the incredible cast, renders is an exceedingly beautiful one, it is by no means the whole picture.  

Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam helped to expand the conversation by bringing their experiences with the veil and with being Muslim women that were not represented in the play into the space.

They spoke to the different Islamic origins for veil wearing that were not depicted in the play and reminded us that practitioners of many faiths that cover their hair (nuns, orthodox Jewish men and women, etc.). Ms. Malik stated that “the obsession with Muslim women wearing a veil is deeply offensive” and suggested that the persistent interrogation of veil-wearing by Muslim women is a racist act that perpetuates the demonization of Islam and oftentimes carries undertones of Western Savior complexes.

One thing that became quite clear very early on in the discussion is that it’s impossible to talk about or experience art in a vacuum. As Ms. Malik reminded us, “Islamophobia is very real in the world.” We live in a world where Islamophobia still courses through the blood of our nation, tormenting and terminating the lives of many innocent people. Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam both expressed concern over the portrayal of the veil as well as other aspects of Islam and Muslim identity in the production. Audience members who oftentimes enter the space with limited knowledge of the veil and the religion leave the theatre having experienced a very specific point of view, and now, perhaps, feel qualified to form their own opinions without ever seeking out further knowledge and first hand experiences.  Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager, reminded us that if you’re not careful, “when you engage in a conversation, about a religion that’s already attacked, you’re providing the ammunition.”

Multiple audience members chimed in to express that while the play might not showcase every relevant perspective, it peaked their curiosity, rather than condemnation, regarding the Islamic faith. One participant expressed his gratitude for the story and for those who share their religious beliefs: “When I see a radical southern baptist preaching on the corner, I may think to myself that’s not accurate biblically, but to him I say thank you.”

Minita Gandhi, the actress who plays Mahwish, posed the question: so where, then, does the responsibility of the playwright lie? Is the artist socially liable to tell the most politically correct or wholistic story if it is not the point of view they are interested in exploring or by which they stand?

What I took away from this viscerally alive dialogue was that art is a facilitator of richer dialogue and deeper communities, not the end of a conversation. We live in a world still battling intense intersectional oppression that tends to foster separation and condemnation (subconscious or not) between people who are different from one another. Art counteracts this habitualized isolation and suspicion by capitalizing on something so human that it transcends these internalized false barriers: empathy. It does not, and cannot, tell the full picture, and that is why public programs are mandated – to maximize the personal stakes that the art conjures and to propel the conversation forward through additional knowledge and perspectives.

Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam closed the program by urging the attendees to research and pursue further knowledge about the incredibly “beautiful, peaceful, logical, and simple” religion of Islam as well as how cultural influences color both various iterations and our own understandings about the faith. After all, knowledge is the best defense against hatred or apathy. Our inherent connectivity as humans is only deepened when we explore it through different lenses and with open hearts.

Rohina Malik’s critically acclaimed one Woman play,UNVEILED, explores the complexities of Islam through the perspective of five Muslim women in a post-9/11 world. UNVEILED has been performed by Malik nationwide, including at: Yale, NYU, Princeton, University of Chicago, and regional theaters such as Silk Road Rising & 16th Street Theater. We are excited to have Rohina’s one woman show at Victory Gardens Theater presented as a one-time-only performance throughout the run of The Who & The What on Wednesday, July 1st at 7:00 p.m.