Collaboraction is in its 23rd season, but in some ways it’s a very different company than it was at its inception. Although they always emphasized new work (for years, Collaboraction’s Sketchbook festival of new short plays was its calling card—and a helluva theater party), since 2013 their mission has been “to cultivate empathy, knowledge, dialogue and action for the betterment of society.” They’ve attempted this through several initiatives, including their annual Peacebook Festival, Youth Theatre Festival, and the Encounter performance series.
The latter returns this weekend and next for a third year with Encounter: Being and Becoming—two different programs of new work and works-in-progress running at Kennedy-King College in Englewood, where Collaboraction has put down roots for at least this year. The Becoming program features two mid-length pieces: Inspire: Breathe Life by Sir Taylor (a founding member of the Jesse White Tumblers and founder of the Example Setters, a youth poetry team), directed by Collaboraction founder Anthony Moseley; and Lady Sol’s Dance Diary, Vol. I, by Leida “Lady Sol” Garcia of the youth hip-hop and social justice collective, Kuumba Lynx, directed by Sandra Delgado.
The shorter pieces in the Being program also provide direct and personal lenses on how social inequality and racism have shaped Chicago in the past and present. Playwright Reginald Edmund, founder of the celebrated “Black Lives, Black Words” international project, which focuses on creating theater out of current racial justice issues, directs a devised piece, Englewood: A Love Story, highlighting the neighborhood Kennedy-King calls home. Moseley approached Edmund about making a piece based on interviews with Englewood residents.
Edmund, a native of Houston who has lived in Chicago for over eight years, says that finding the stories that make up the piece came about by “reaching out to the Englewood community and working with Anthony, being introduced to people within the community. And some of those interviews came from directly connecting with members of the cast, because pretty much every member is from Englewood or has some relationship to the south and west sides of the city.”
Though Edmund lives in Hyde Park, he says “The stories of Englewood echo the stories of Houston or almost any other Black community that I’ve entered into. If people really take a deep look at the community, they would see that there is a rich heritage of Black identity and pride in who they are and what they stand for. There are really strong family connections in the community.”
One of the narrative arcs that Edmund and his cast found follows a family’s history in Englewood from the 1960s to the present day. “I think oftentimes saying ‘this neighborhood is up to no good’ is really just a racist way to push members of the community out, and to isolate that neighborhood so that gentrification can come in and sweep that history out from under it. If you really look deep inside, there is absolutely true beauty within that community.”
Family connections unfold in a different way in Miranda Gonzalez’s F.O.P. Gonzalez, the artistic director of Humboldt Park’s UrbanTheater Company (and one of the only Afro Latina artistic directors in the U.S.), was inspired by Black Lives Matter, but also drew upon the stories of her own family members and friends who are members of the Chicago Police Department and have faced institutional racism and oppression within the CPD.
Specifically, Gonzalez says, she remembered stories about two members of her family who both worked for CPD and had a mixed-race child in the 1990s. Photographs of their infant son were posted around the station with racial slurs written on them. “I started digging into that a lot more,” Gonzalez says. “I was wondering ‘Has this even changed?'” Gonzalez envisions the version of F.O.P. in Encounter as the first part of a longer piece that will jump into the present. “When you are part of an institution that fosters systemic oppression, how do you survive it as a person of color or as an ally? Or are you even able to?”
Gonzalez (whose piece is directed by Juan Castañeda) notes that when she approached non-family members of CPD to ask about their experiences, only two white members were willing to be interviewed. “The officers of color were more willing to discuss what policing in general meant to them and their reasons for joining the force. There were a lot of repetitive stories about race and oppression within the institution they faced themselves.”
In Lift Every Voice, written by G. Riley Mills and musician, writer, and west-side activist Willie Round, a real-life racial incident at a Chicago high school provided the inspiration. Directed by Rory Jobst, the play unfolds at a student government meeting about how to address a racially incendiary Snapchat sent by a white student after the school decides to replace “The Star Spangled Banner” with “Lift Every Voice” (aka “the Black national anthem”).
Jobst, whose experience with younger students includes teaching composition for several years at Truman College, says that in the early stages of working on the piece, he was focused on the “cancel culture” aspects of the story. “It wasn’t so much about race relations. It is now about that, but it was, early on, about how teenagers use technology to respond to problematic events and occurrences, and the self-satisfaction of calling somebody out. I know that kids and teenagers do have this propensity to say ‘I can take the moral high ground over this other person.’ Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a problematic and destructive thing.”
Bringing this work to another city college campus is also exciting for Jobst, who has worked extensively in north-side theaters such as Curious Theatre Branch and the now-defunct Oracle Productions. “These are very different audiences than we usually get. These aren’t pieces made for critics or the Jeff committee or our friends. By doing it where we’re doing it, especially with [Edmund’s] piece, it really is for the community.”
Edmund says “So often we think performing on the north side or one of these major theaters is what makes us a great success. But if we really look at the core mission of what theater should be, it’s really to serve communities, and this is our opportunity to do that.” v
On Saturday, January 18, the Becoming program kicks off at 3 PM, with Being at 7 PM. (Collaboraction’s Being program also includes Sankofa, a spoken-word piece by Antwon Funches, directed by Tatyana Chante, about the escape of an enslaved mother and daughter.) In between the programs on Saturday at 5:30 PM, Collaboraction hosts the “MLK Speech Slam,” featuring performers doing both verbatim renditions and creative interpretations of King’s greatest speeches. The winner takes home $1,000 in prize money.