While I am the Events Coordinator for your favorite neighborhood public radio station, I am also a theater geek. Live theater is a passion of mine and, whenever I can convince Breeze and Daniel (Vice President of Strategic Communications and our boss) to do an event using and promoting theater, I'm gonna.
Last year we presented The Alternative History of Chicago Theater (Abridged) and it was a huge success. But one thing bothered me (and it bothered both of our Dueling Critics as well) - in all of the discussion of our rich history as a theater city, there was very little talk of anything that wasn't about white artists.
"All theater is political and sometimes what isn't being produced is the strongest political statement being made." - Chay Yew
The Off-Air presentation on Sunday was both exactly the kind of event one would expect from WBEZ and, at the same time, completely atypical.
What made it in keeping with the WBEZ tradition included a stellar panel of accomplished community leaders, an in-depth conversation about a thoughtful topic, intelligent and solid performances, and an engaged and talkative audience.
But what made the event notable was the topic of the conversation.
"We are terrified to have a genuine conversation about race and class in this country - it fills us with dread even considering the deep layers of history and prejudice - so we talk around it in safer ways." - Timothy Douglas
The event itself was simple in execution. Hosted byNatalie Moore, the panel included three Chicago artists (two - Victory Gardens Artistic Director Chay Yew andRemy Bumppo Artistic Director Timothy Douglas - who are relatively new to the Chicago scene plus longtime local creator/director/writer/poet Coya Paz) as they discussed the idea that, while Chicago has recently been hailed as THE Theater Capitol of the World by theatrical journalists, our regular production of plays that deal with political material is wanting.
In addition to the discussion were three brand new ten-minute plays, written by artists of color, exploring race and class in America. Each piece was packed full of hard truths and strong observations and the audience received each one enthusiastically. The three directors chosen cast a great crew of actors and the odd "stage within a stage" set from the Victory Gardens latest play served the event well, allowing the panel to sit and watch each play while it was being performed and then return to the conversation seamlessly.
"There's actually a lot of work being done in Chicago that focuses on political issues but is largely invisible to the general public and the mainstream media." - Coya Paz
Interestingly, the panel was a bit timid at first, giving short form answers and warming up to the ideas being discussed. Moore quickly turned to the three plays.
"On Principle"was first and gave us a newly promoted principal of a private grade school dealing with the mother of the only black student who has read, out loud, the most reviled word in modern times (and I don't mean "Banker").
"Helpline"came second and presented us with an Evanston woman of East Indian descent as she relates a tale of encountering a Microsoft helpline employee who is in India and her patronizing approach to helping her.
"Purchasing Power"was a satire that had a black man coming in to a store that sells white men and attempting to purchase his very own white man.
Perhaps sparked by the plays, the panel came to life and began to unpack the large topic at hand. Yew talked about directing Our Town and having a patron amazed that a Chinese director could possibly get it right; Paz discussed the reality that there are currently no major theater critics in Chicago who are not white and the implications of having work focused on the specific cultural challenges of being non-white being judged strictly by white critics; Douglas opened up a can of worms in his revelation that, as an African American, he has been exposed to playing characters across the racial spectrum in "color blind" casting which, ultimately makes him more qualified to explore cultural differences than an artist who has only ever played his or her own ethnicity on stage.
Most importantly, the conversation was fun.
"Unless you are the kind of person who likes to have someone yelling at you about politics, I think humor is essential for political theater to take hold." - Coya Paz
Afterward, the crowd was buzzing (the free Intelligentsia coffee in the lobby might have had something to do with that) and a multitude of small group conversations were popping up throughout.
"People who weren't here tonight will lie and say they were."
"My favorite play was..."
"I'm definitely going to go see Tim's/Coya's/Chay's work this year!"
I'm generally very proud to work for WBEZ. Sunday night made me about three inches prouder.
* Photo Credit: Jerry Schulman
Next up on Off-Air:
The Chicago Manual: More than a Century of Style
Tuesday, November 8 at 7:00 p.m.
Anyone can publish his or her thoughts instantly but does everyone do it with style? Now in its 16th edition, The Chicago Manual of Style is the must-have reference for everyone who works with words. Explore both the history of this authoritative text and its relevance in an era where instantaneous global publication is only a tap, text, or tweet away.