Editor’s Note, July 20: After this column was published, it was called to our attention that the Random Acts of Theater show has the same title and imagery as an earlier piece by Stephanie Diaz. We regret not catching that similarity at the time and apologize to Diaz and the other creators involved with that work. We asked Jessica Thebus and Stephanie Diaz for comment. Thebus responded: “Random Acts of Theater would like to publicly apologize to Stephanie Diaz for the appropriation of the title and central image of her show Mariposa Nocturna: A Puppet Tryptich. We believed we were creating an original work, but it is clear now that the many coincidences between our planned installation and Stephanie’s show are too many to justify our pursuit of the project in this form. We regret having contributed to even an accidental erasure of an artist’s work—it was certainly on us to have done our homework and appropriately honored the work of Ms. Diaz and her collaborators.”
Diaz has declined public comment to the Reader at this time.
Editor’s Note, July 21: We are updating this post with the full text of subsequent written statements from both Stephanie Diaz and Jessica Thebus.
“On behalf of myself and all of the artists involved in Mariposa Nocturna: A Puppet Triptych over the years, I can only respond that it is impossible to accept an apology predicated on what amounts to erasure. It is difficult to conceive of the many similarities between my piece and the one in question as merely the products of ‘coincidence’ and ‘failure to research,’ because Jessica Thebus originally became acquainted with this work years ago, when a prospective student applying to study under her leadership at NU included production images of the show in their application portfolio. Those images, and the work they depicted, were part of the applicant’s interview process, a process which ultimately resulted in the student’s acceptance to the program.”
“Having been a professional artist myself for over 30 years, I understand how others’ works can occasionally make such an impression that we find ourselves referencing them, consciously or perhaps subconsciously, in our own creations. Had Thebus simply admitted this was possibly the case—whether on her part or the part of Ismael Mora—it might be plausible to accept her apology. But to try and claim that her company’s work was completely and independently devised to produce such similar results in theme, content, and imagery—right down to the structure and punctuation of the title—is insulting to myself and the artists who so wholeheartedly gave of themselves to bring this work to its well-documented fruition.”
“As the piece remains part of my own company’s repertoire, it is still a living work and as such, I do appreciate the company’s immediate cessation of any material that retains any similarities thereto whatsoever. I would like to add that if only someone from this group had reached out to me early in their process regarding the obvious influence of my work on theirs, I would have gladly and wholeheartedly collaborated with them on expanding these ideas into content that would have been original and unique to their ensemble. It is unfortunate, too, that a young Latinx artist with an interest in puppetry, pursuing a nascent career in Chicago, would neglect to research the community they are joining, and the wealth of resources herein. Let us not waste any more opportunities to bring artists together.”
“My response to Stephanie’s statement is that I have made my statement and feel that Stephanie should make hers.”
Back in June, a coalition of more than 300 BIPOC theatermakers released a public testimonial under the moniker “We See You, White American Theater.” The open letter in part called out “theatres, executive leaders, critics, casting directors, agents, unions, commercial producers, universities and training programs,” adding, “You are all a part of this house of cards built on white fragility and supremacy. And this is a house that will not stand.” The testimonial was signed by several Chicago-based BIPOC artists (including Sydney Charles, Regina Victor, Wardell Julius Clark, and Sandra Marquez, among others) as well as high-profile names like Viola Davis, Wendell Pierce, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. An accompanying petition on change.org has nearly 83,000 signatures as of this writing.
We See You W.A.T. followed this initial shot across the bow this month with the “BIPOC Demands for White American Theatre”—a comprehensive and detailed compilation that both anatomizes the systemic racism in the American theatrical ecosystem and provides a roadmap for ways to begin dismantling it.
There’s a lot to unpack in the 31-page document, which can be read in its entirety in a PDF here. It’s broken down into sections covering cultural competency, working conditions and hiring practices, artistic and curatorial practices, funding and resource demands for BIPOC organizations, commercial theater and Broadway, unions, press, and academic and professional training programs.
Some of the points dovetail with those made in broader areas of anti-racist reform, such as the demand that theaters “cease all contractual security agreements with police departments.” Others are more granular in nature, such as demanding that theaters “provide the necessary hair and makeup products, barbers, and/or hairdressers when working with Black artists.” Demands for greater transparency and equity across all areas—funding, hiring, salaries, season selection, and board member affiliations among them—resonate throughout the document.
There will be much more to report on We See You W.A.T. in the months to come, but the collaborative “living document” they’ve created should be required reading for all who are interested in breaking down racist structures and practices in theater and beyond.
Honk for justice
One Black Chicago theatermaker and organizer has come up with a creative form of protest. Jocelyn Prince, who has worked as a dramaturg at theaters around the country as well as being a principal partner at ALJP Consulting (a planning and search firm focused on creating equity, diversity, and inclusion in cultural organizations), wants you to “Honk for Justice.”
The protests, which take place daily at locations throughout the north side, bring a dollop of performance art to the sidewalks of West Town, Uptown, Rogers Park, and elsewhere.
Prince notes, “When the protests began nationwide around the George Floyd murder, I first started protesting on the south side of Chicago. I’m from the south side, I protested down there for several days. And these were the types of protests where we were getting in the faces of police officers with batons.”
But, she adds, “I live in Rogers Park. I’ve lived in Lakeview, I went to school in Evanston at Northwestern, I have a connection to the north side. So I was thinking about how people on the north side don’t tend to go to the south side or the west side, they perceive those areas to be dangerous. It’s where the Black people live, people of color live, they’re poor dangerous areas. And a lot of this brutality enacted on Black people by police are in those areas.”
Prince wanted to see more people on the north side standing up for anti-racism and justice. After discussions with her friend Madison Kamp (who is white), they started out in early June with what Prince calls “regular visibility protests” on sidewalks at busy intersections. But then, says Prince, “What I started to think about was me as a Black woman having to do all of this work to organize people, to try to teach and organize white people to stop being racist toward me, and how tiring that labor is. And I started thinking about activists like Fannie Lou Hamer who said famously, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ And so, you know, for me, that was where I came up with the image of me sort of lounging on the beach. Not the literal beach, but with the straw hat and everything, soaking my feet.”
That’s where Honk for Justice adds a performance art twist to the regular protest motif. When Prince is there, she sits in a lawn chair reading. White volunteers serve as mediators between her and anyone who wants to interact with her, telling them, as Prince says, “‘No, she’s resting. She needs to rest. You can talk to me.’ Which is also an interesting dynamic.”
The protests have included musicians and theater artists—Chicago actor Joe Foust has shown up as a “sad clown,” handing out black helium balloons to children. Prince wants to see more Chicago theater artists as well as families of all kinds showing up, holding signs and making noise to call attention to anti-racism and justice.
“I think it’s a good way for kids to process and understand all of this stuff that is happening around them. I think it’s also a good way to teach kids that they have a voice in their democracy, too. And I think that an eight-year-old will remember this and it will inspire them to participate civically in their communities when they get older. And I think that is very important.” You can check out the schedule for upcoming Honk for Justice events on Facebook.
Phase four for playmakers
A handful of companies are dipping their toes back into the live performance waters this month. As of this writing, Judy and Liza—Once in a Lifetime: The London Palladium Concert—A Tribute, which opened at the Greenhouse in early March and then had to shut down with all the other shows in town, is planning on reopening at the Greenhouse on July 24. Stars Nancy Hays (who also coproduces) and Alexa Castelvecchi return as the mother-daughter diva duo, with a three-piece band, reenacting their 1964 concert. Reader critic Albert Williams wrote of that earlier outing, “The show’s best moments are the duet medleys, in which Hays and Castelvecchi evoke the deep and honest affection that bonded mother and daughter in both triumphant and trying times.” They’ll now be evoking that bond at a putatively safe distance, though it bears emphasizing that singing has been suspected to be a particularly effective spreader of the COVID-19 virus.
The audience will be required to wear face masks, and the Greenhouse’s mainstage space is capped at 25% capacity. The theater further promises that “special filters will be used in all our heating and air conditioning units.” Judging by responses on social media, it’s a controversial decision and it remains to be seen if these songbirds in the coal mine will draw audiences. Right now, the show is scheduled through August 9.
If you’re more comfortable with outdoor performance, Chicago director Jessica Thebus and collaborators have been organizing “Random Acts of Theater.” On July 11, they offered Flight of Birds on the beach near Loyola (shhh! Don’t tell the mayor!), featuring a large blue heron puppet and several smaller bird puppets “to offer an image of Freedom and Power to all the people in the park.” On Saturday, August 8, they present Mariposas Nocturnas: A Twilight Procession, created by Ismael Lara. It will “celebrate the lives of all those who have gone before, with the image of luminous white moths, candles, and music,” says Thebus. Those interested in this family-friendly event should congregate by 8:30 PM at the end of Farwell Avenue in Loyola Park, wear dark clothing, and carry an electric candle. The performance will be socially distanced and masks are required. You can follow them on Instagram for more information. v