A Decade of Theatre: Top Ten
A decade of theatre. 36 plays performed in (not including staged readings), 8 plays directed, 8 plays produced. That’s in addition to serving as either the Artistic Director or Executive Director for three different companies at one point or another, writing/adapting plays, and working a full time job. In the past several years I’ve added “advocate” and “consultant” to my list of titles - pushing for further accessibility and inclusion in theatre while doing my best to learn from others. There’s a lot of memories in this decade – both good and bad. And a lot of people in this decade – both good and bad.
I began the decade having just left Chicago for Ohio where I intended to stay for just a year and ended up staying for four, moved to New York for a brief span of four months and realized it wasn’t where I was meant to be, and returned to Chicago for the last six years. It’s been a RIDE and I’m grateful for all of the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and the shows I’ve seen. A while back there was a 10 Day Actor Challenge where people posted pictures of plays they were in that were of a “day you felt fierce or a memorable moment you've had during a rehearsal or performance”. I thought it was fun – if a bit lacking. Because I wanted to know the stories behind those photos and why they made people feel the way they felt. I kept meaning to do my own after being tagged – but I struggled with paring it down because I am so hyper-critical of myself. And then I realized that some of the times I felt most present or the most powerful in a theater were the times I was an audience member.
These Ten Plays are all shows that I’ve seen – work created by artists other than me. I am deliberately ruling out any play that I’ve worked on, even marginally.
And by no means is this a “best of” list. But rather a list of plays that have impacted me in some way or another. There’s also a lot of work that I feel like would have impacted me, but I did not get the opportunity to see for one reason or another. The great tragedy of being a theatre artist is that while you are creating your own work you don’t always get to see the work of others. No other art form has this – sculptors, painters, filmmakers, singers – you can view the art after the fact. But for theatre, not so much. So with humble apologies to those shows and experiences I was unable to see – here is my list of ten of the most impactful theatrical experiences I’ve seen in no particular order. Honorable mentions: ALL OUR TRAGIC – Hypocrites (2015), MEASURE FOR MEASURE – Cheek by Jowl + Pushkin Theatre (2016), TRIBES – Steppenwolf (2014), TWELFTH NIGHT – Filter Theatre (2016), KING LEAR – Belarus Free Theatre (2016), ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT – Red Tape Theatre (2019), LOTTERY DAY – Goodman Theatre (2019), BIRDLAND – Steep Theatre (2018)
1. PASS OVER – Steppenwolf Theatre Company (2017)
Julian Parker and John Michael Hill. Photo by Michael Brosilow I saw this in the company of several other POC, all of whom were Deaf, and afterwards we could only marvel at the intensity of the show. What struck me the most was the -silence- as the matinee audience of old white wealthy people filed out of the theatre. This play directly indicted them in their complicity in white supremacy and watching their body language change throughout the performance from amusement, to thoughtfulness, to horror, to acceptance, to anger, and back again was almost as engrossing as the incredible performances onstage. I felt that I was watching two shows – one, the action onstage, and two, the action in the seats next to me as people shifted uncomfortably with the realization that they -could have- stopped the great tragedy at the center of this, but out of a sense of decorum they chose not to. There’s not a play I saw this past decade that so clearly and cleanly pointed out the indictment of white people than PASS OVER – and it makes sense to me why certain critics took offense to it. But it was the truth – they were in a position to help but only watched instead.
2. SPRING AWAKENING – Deaf West Theatre (2015)
Katie Boeck and Sandra Mae Frank. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus It’s hard to find d/Deaf representation in media – theatre, film, or otherwise. When one comes on – we’re usually willing to forgive missteps. For example, I have a lot of issues with the script for TRIBES but I connected so utterly with the character of Billy that when I saw it I was overwhelmed because the pain and anger John McGinty expressed was -so- familiar and honest and real that I could forgive the script for its flaws. But SPRING AWAKENING was such a incredible show from top to bottom that I can’t find anything to criticize. It brought Deaf actors to the forefront of the stage in the most famous theatre street in the world and, boy, were they all magnificent. The incorporation of American Sign Language into a script made dramaturgical sense and elevated the book to new heights. I still think sometimes about some of the beats in this show – the quiet melancholy of “Mama Who Bore Me” to the kinetic choreography of “Totally Fucked” to the lonesome togetherness of “Purple Summer”. What. A. Show. 3. THE BATTLEFIELD - Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. (2017)
Ery Nzaramba. Photo Credit: Simon Annand There’s no director living right now who has had more impact on me than Peter Brook. He is not much longer for this world and I am grateful to have seen this and his take on Samuel Beckett in FRAGMENTS. When I was in college I was utterly enraptured by “The Empty Space” and have used that and his future writings as the template from which I crafted my own (admittedly shoddy in comparison) artistic theories. If Brook has a show nearby – I will do whatever I can to see it to learn. Now, I usually like shows that have a lot of movement and/or imagery as I’m primarily a visual observer - but this play, co-directed with Marié-Hélène Estienne, stripped away all of the usual moments that I adore in theatre and replaced them with stillness and I was utterly captivated. There were moments throughout the show where everything was still and sparse with nothing except the actor reciting to the audience. And in the corner, two ASL interpreters, Shannon Marie (Moutinho) and Amy Kisner, elevated the language, already rich with imagery, to another level. 4. TRISTAN AND YSEULT – Kneehigh Theatre. (2014)
Andrew Durand and Patrycja Kujawska. Photographer: unknown I described this show as both “silly and tragic” to a friend after she saw it. And looking back, I feel the same. I think all the great tragedies, from the Greeks to Shakespeare, have to have that element of silliness to it. There’s one particular moment that took my breath away – when the lovers drink love potions they leap into the air, assisted by some spectacular aerial work, and I’ve never ever seen those feelings of pure love realized so theatrically onstage before. Of all the shows on this list - this probably was the most kinetic and physical and the one I wish I could see again and experience that joy all over again. 5. LELA AND CO. – Steep Theatre Company (2017)
Cruz Gonzalez Cadel. Photo Credit: Brandon Wardell There’s a list of movies I have seen that are so goddamn good but they wrecked me so badly I don’t ever want to see or talk about them again. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, GRAVE OF FIREFLIES, anything by Gaspar Noe, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN… You know the type. LELA AND CO. is the first and only play I’ve seen that I left feeling completely shattered, wrecked, and (for want of a better term) abused. Watching it throughout, all I wished was for it to end because I didn’t know how much more I could take. But also I never wanted it to end because I was invested in this character in a way I had never been before. For sitting through this emotional rollercoaster, I was rewarded with what I think is one of the finest performances of an actor I’ve ever seen onstage in Cruz Gonzalez Cadel and, after leaving the theatre, I honestly did not think I could ever experience joy again. 6. THE?UNICORN?HOUR? – The Neo-Futurists (2017)
Leah Urzendowski and Anthony Courser. Photo Credit: Brave Lux inc. We all know that Chicago is known for its “gritty” dramas where apparently no one is allowed to end up happy. Even half the comedies I’ve seen end up with someone dead or traumatized. So seeing THE?UNICORN?HOUR? was a needed shock to my system. This was piece I went into expecting to hate because I am cantankerous and I hate happy things. This is a piece I ended up crying tears of joy as I left the theatre. I think there was a part of me that had really forgotten that theatre can be fun. I saw this was less than six months after November 2016 when my country decided keeping the ugliness buried was no longer good enough and wanted to relish it out in the open. THE?UNICORN?HOUR? ended up being the catharsis I needed at the time. There was no cynicism to be found here, no pessimism or nihilism. Just two people in skin-tight sparkly unicorn outfits choosing to live in a world where they can be happy and inviting us inside that world with them. 7. THE HAIRY APE – Oracle Productions. (2016)
Julian Parker. Photo Credit: Brave Lux Inc. Confession: I hated this play the first time I ever read it. I had to read it in college for Theatre History and found it wanting. The characters were unlikable, the plot was threadbare, and the themes got lost in the text. For what it’s worth - I have found most of Eugene O’Neill’s plays wanting. As I’ve gotten older - I’ve been less interested in the struggles of white men and find it hard to relate to art about them. And much of the Western Canon is, in fact, that. So, hearing rave reviews from friends, I went into this show with trepidation. And then Monty Cole took this show I hated and transformed this into one of the most unapologetically black works of art that I’ve ever seen. There were moments throughout when I felt my heart was thumping in time with the rhythm of the stepping; and the rage of the titular character was, for the first time, something I both understood and empathized with. Those “great works” of literature and drama, can and should be mined for some incredibly searing work by artists of color, and no play I saw this decade drove that home more than this production. This is a necessary evolution of theatre and I’m excited to see what it brings.
8. RED REX – Steep Theatre Company (2019)
Aurora Adachi-Winter. Photo Credit: Lee Miller A few years back there was a townhall at Victory Gardens following the casting of a white actor in a Latino role. The one phrase that stuck with me from that town hall (and I wish I knew who said it so I could give them credit) was: “Don’t just get consultants, get collaborators”. RED REX felt like a direct response to the intention behind that phrase – I don’ know if that’s what Ike Holter intended, but that’s certainly what it felt like to me. I’ve seen so many plays done by theatre companies led with white-cishet-abled men telling stories about communities and cultures with no first-hand knowledge of them that it comes off feeling inauthentic. The stripping of the narratives of marginalized folx, especially people of color, and bequeathing that responsibility to people who will say: “Well, we have so-and-so advising on this play” is no longer good enough. But that’s just one part of why this play stuck with me – towards the end of this show, one of the characters, played by Aurora Adachi-Winter, lets loose a blistering rant about how white people are terrified of offending the black community but are -PERFECTLY FINE- with letting other people of color slide on by that it took every fiber of my being not to deliver a resounding “HELL YEAH!” The percentage of white artists who KNOW blackface is bad but think yellow face, brown face, cripping up, etc. is perfectly a-ok is just too damn high. I say this especially because, in my hometown, they recently did a performance of MADAMA BUTTERFLY and yet AGAIN cast a white woman as the lead. My gentle probing of “Hey, would you cast a white man in OTELLO?” was ignored and all I got was a pithy: “We cast who auditioned and we cast the best person for the role oh and also if you want you can help us find people that are actually Asian”. The same old story, you know the words. I was supposed to email them back but never did because I saw it wasn’t going to do any good - because in Youngstown Ohio, and much of the country, yellowface is still okay and its a lonely battle to fight. So THAT speech - is probably the single most impactful chunk of text in any theatre production I’ve seen in the past ten years and I’m waiting for the script to be officially published so I can memorize it and let it loose when I need it. 9. THE RAFT – Butler Institute of American Art (2012)
Photograph: Bill Viola Okay, this may be stretching the definition of theatre but there is so much theatricality in this piece that I had to include it. The tl;dr of the piece is that it is a slow-motion video of a crowd of people who get slammed by a tsunami of water and then slowly help themselves up again. It played inside a darkened room at the Butler and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And then four days later – the massacre at Sandy Hook happened. In THE RAFT there is a moment when the deluge of water first began to hit the group, that an old woman in yellow fell, the first of many. There was a moment of panic and confusion – an idea of: what do we do splayed clearly on the faces and in the body language of several of the group nearest to her. As the water continued to rush – the woman remained still and my worry kicked in. “This is a performance piece,” I knew, “but is she okay? Is she really hurt? That was a lot of fucking water.” The water was relentless and seemed like it would go on forever. But slowly, in that painfully stretched out time that Viola created, a person knelt down in the torrent to check on her. Then another. And as the water died away, we saw the group had found a way to come together in this event– some had arms around each other, a red haired woman was crying in a stranger’s arms. A man leant on another for support. The old woman in yellow laid there unmoving in the center of the screen. Only those closest to her reached out to help – the others were so concerned with themselves and the people closest to them, that it didn't even seem like they saw her. And as the lights faded and THE RAFT came to an end – this did not change. There’s moments of hope interspersed with moments of complete despair. And if that’s not the sum of America in this decade, I do not know what is.
10. WE’RE GONNA DIE – Haven Chicago (2017)
Isa Arciniegas. Photograph by Austin D. Oie Dealing with my own personal shit is something I’ve always struggled to do and probably always will. And usually when shit goes bad I usually just hermit and listen to a lot of music. Music has a way of tackling some hard to deal with subjects and turning that pain into a source of power – and listening to the stories told by Isa Arcinageas’ Singer and then head-banging to the music was the kind of catharsis that was at once both familiar and new. And then, towards the end, balloons fall on the audience and I remembered what it was like to be a kid again. As I held a balloon in my hands and felt the vibrations thrum through it, I was reminded of listening to a small concert as a kid with a balloon in my hands that helped me “hear” (before I had hearing aids). I don’t know if any other individual that saw WE’RE GONNA DIE had that same moment where they were at once a child staring in wonder and joy at being able to FEEL music and at the same time being an adult and being able to FEEL the raw emotion emanating from the band. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about art - some of it is just going to hit you specifically in a way it won’t ever hit anyone else. There are days when I feel pretty low and I wish I had access to a recording of this show so I could listen to it again– because much like the way we “receive” music changes based on our emotions – this show would no doubt be different every time I listened to it. What would 2019 Richard, who has come a long way from 2017 Richard feel when he heard the words: “Who do you think you are to be immune from tragedy?" Similarly, what will 2020 Richard think? I think that’s why I love this show so much – because every time I look back on it, I know that with the way everything in life changes so fast, that if I saw it again, I’d be seeing it for the first time. 11. BONUS: Chicago Theatre Activists. I wasn’t going to include this - but then Chris Jones decided to stand atop his throne of privilege instead of taking a seat and now I feel that I need to. Here’s what he said was one of his wishes for 2020. “That our city’s activist-moralist artists understand that some people take time to become enlightened and that attacking them on social media achieves nothing. Generosity and tolerance are under-appreciated qualities in theater artists.” Here’s a truth that Chris Jones doesn’t seem to understand: People from marginalized communities have been giving white people (almost always white cishet men) time to become enlightened for decades. In a few hours it will be 2020. Dr. King gave his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial almost sixty years ago. SIXTY YEARS since Dr. King first asked those white cishet people to become enlightened. Are we to wait another sixty? How much time is enough time? In a few hours it will be 2020. Shouldn’t we have moved past this by now? Shouldn't we know that when a member of a marginalized community says, “Hey, not okay” that we need to take a step back? Shouldn’t we not even NEED someone to say, “Hey, not okay” because 90% of the shit that is happening is so glaringly not “okay” that you don’t need marginalized folx to educate you at this point? Apparently this is too much to ask. What Chris Jones ALSO doesn’t understand is that many attempts are made behind-the-scenes to change the culture without any success. And sometimes social media activism is the only way to knock some sense into them. Because when a few artists of color stand up and say “Hey, not okay,” its easy to ignore it. But when an entire community lifts up their voice in unison it becomes impossible to ignore. And what Chris Jones ALSO ALSO does not understand is that those companies and those people will continue to ignore us anyways. We only have to look at 16th Street Theater brushing #TalesFromHisShadowAt16thStreet under the rug. Or the tepid response from Writer’s Theatre to the harassment of actors by its Artistic Director. Or on and on and on... Because, let’s be real, for every theater or person that is held accountable there are at least a dozen that aren’t. And what Chris Jones REALLY doesn’t understand is how reassuring it is for me, as a deaf person of color, and for others like me to see this brotherhood of artists of all communities, all cultures, all creeds, and all identities rise up in unison to join their voices and say “This is not okay.” It is reassuring, it is comforting, it is healing, and it is nurturing. And here’s the important thing about all these call outs and call ins: it is OKAY to fuck up. We all fuck up. I’ve fucked up more times than I can count. But it is how you respond to those fuck ups that matters. And here’s an even more important thing: we can learn from the fuck ups of others. There have been times when I’ve seen my own actions in the actions of a industry professional being called out or called in. And I do my best to clock those moments and change myself. The Chicago theatre community is an incredible group of artists from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds and there isn’t a day I don’t learn something new. And this incredibly diversity has lead to some incredible voices that have impacted the way I move through the world: Regina Victor and the writing team at Rescripted, Wardell Julius Clark, Lavina Jadhwani, Anna Donnell, Bear Bellinger, Molly Brennan, Lori Myers and Lori Fisher and everyone who has embraced #NotInOurHouse, Bea Cordelia-Sullivan-Knoff, Lauren Villegas and Project Am I Right, Howard Sherman, the entire team at the Deaf Theatre Action Planning Session at HowlRound Theatre Commons (especially our leaders: David Kurs, Alexandria Wailes, Rachel Grossman, Ethan Sinnott, Tyrone Giordano, and Patty Liang), Emma Couling, Gaby Labotka, Sydney Charles, Isaac Ike, Behzad Dabu, Michelle Schaefer, Josh Sobel, Claire Alston, Rachel Arfa and everyone at Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium - CCAC, Havalah Grace, Brenda Scott Wlazlo, Malic White, Catherine Miller, Corrbette Pasko, Stephanie Diaz,Emjoy Gavino, Abhi Shrestha, and everyone at the The Chicago Inclusion Project,Terri Lynne Hudson and on and on and on and on... These are activists - these are also some of the most patient people I know who have been working to enlighten folks for years. They’re shining a light into some of the darkest parts of the industry n Chicago and elsewhere and they have been more impactful in the last ten years than any show I’ve seen. And, honestly, I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings.