Chicago church offers theater as therapy
The stage at St. Martin's Episcopal Church is split into two halves.
On stage right, a newlywed couple crosses the threshold. On stage left, the same couple grows old and spiteful in their daughter’s home, 30 years later.
The play, Karma, tells the tale of a couple's struggle with violence and alcoholism, and its ugly aftermath. It centers around double characters and a storyline that alternates between two time periods.
Playwright Senyah Haynes, said these dualities woven into her play are intentional. They are meant to remind the audience that people aren't all good or all bad.
“Lovely people do some really evil things. People who are really horrible can be really kind to a stranger,” Haynes said. “You can’t just box people in.”
Director Raina Long said the story is also meant to be a bitter dose of medicine for the surrounding Austin neighborhood.The area has seen ongoing gang violence and nearly 1,000 violent crimes so far this year, according to Chicago police statistics.
Long and parishioner Derrick Dawson started the theater at St. Martin’s two years ago to offer artistic healing for the neighborhood and a safe place for its youth.
“Arts funding on the West Side is very hard to come by,” Long said. “There aren’t a lot of extra-curricular activities for young people on this side of town in general.”
Austin’s YMCA, a popular hangout for local teens, closed in October. Neighbors are worried that the lack of options could lead teens to other activities, like selling drugs on the corner.
“Being able to see this story and then hopefully relate to it in some way, I hope will give the audience an opportunity to perhaps heal some of the hurts they may have going on,” Long said.
In Karma, the characters Queen and Ezekiel have a painful memory that haunts them in old age: The young Ezekiel beats Queen, his pregnant wife, in a drunken rage. He mistakenly thinks the baby she's carrying isn't his, but the audience knows that Ezekiel is killing his own son. The lights dim on a bloodied Queen, lying on the ground.
Backstage, 19-year-old Jasmine Derosier is working the sound and lighting. When she watches the beat-down scene, she remembers experiences involving her own family. She saw her cousin's pregnant 16-year-old friend get beaten by her boyfriend.
“He hit the girl with a bottle to her stomach, and the next thing you know, we saw this girl with blood going down her legs,” Derosies said.
She said seeing the play and interacting with the cast has taught her to think before acting.
“I can calm myself down by remembering some stuff from the play,” Derosies said. Before, she said, "I know I treat(ed) my little brothers like they're little rugrats, kick(ed) them around a little bit."
Now, she said, she tries to "think about what you're doing before you do it." She thinks other people from the neighborhood could relate to the play and learn from it, too, like her mom.
"The way she treats me and my little brothers, it's all this anger towards us. But here and there she'll be playing with us, then the next thing you know, she's back angry," Derosiers said. "If you ask me, watching this play, she'd just sit down and think about it."
St. Martin's parishioner Anita Haskell said she hasn't experienced the kind of physical abuse the play shows, but seeing it took her back to difficult relationships from the past.
"It's very close to the bone, really," Haskell said. "We had one congregation member walk out because he couldn't take it."
In Karma, Queen leaves Ezekiel and flees to Chicago to protect her daughters from their abusive father. Thirty years later, Queen and her old husband are stuck back together in their daughter's house because they can't afford a nursing home.
Warren Feagins plays the older Ezekiel.
“He’s a character who’s like most of us,” Feagins said. “We appear to be mostly one thing on the surface, but underneath there’s a lot going on."
Feagins said his character could help people understand the violent tendencies in everyone.
“Sometimes I look out into the audience, and I really wish that there were more people here from the community,” Feagins said. He grew up in public housing in Chicago at the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green.
“(There are) some people here that need to get the message but unfortunately don’t know about it, or there are things going on in their lives that prevent them from coming,” Feagins said.
The play manages to end on a positive note: It implies Queen and Ezekiel are able to end the cycle of domestic violence. After three decades of separation, Queen eventually forgives Ezekiel for his actions.
Karma closes with a young bride's joyful laughter, and the two sides of the severed stage, the past and the present, coming together.