Chicago theater is in the midst of a historic transition, with COVID throwing companies into financial turmoil, forcing season cancellations, mass layoffs, and in some cases, permanent closures. Yet alongside this devastation, demands for rapid social evolution have led some institutions to step (or be pushed) into dramatic growth. Historically, talented Black theatermakers have largely been relegated to onstage or lower-level administrative roles. Now a stunning wave of seven new hires (taking the lead at nearly the same time) marks an era of seismic change. Below is a glimpse into the fresh vision for the future of Chicago theater from these new leaders.
In the long tradition of Black mentorship, I asked everyone interviewed who helped shape their careers along the way, as well as what up-and-comers and collaborators they see as the next link in the chain of this Chicago Black Artistic Renaissance.
Sana Selemon, the executive director for BoHo Theatre, first auditioned with the company two years ago, came on as a company member earlier this year, and was quickly approached about the executive director position. “Honestly, at first I was a little scared because I thought that taking a larger leadership role with an organization was something I thought would happen later on in my life. I think there’s always a bit of impostor syndrome when you first hear these things.” Black talent has often been passed over for critical career-defining promotions. It is imperative that young leaders get a foot in the door with small organizations, so that as they mature they can keep pace with their white peers in terms of career advancement.
As she takes the helm, one of her biggest challenges is grappling with COVID and the safety of returning to live performance. Selemon says, “We are never going to jump the gun on something like that. There are so many opportunities to keep that measure of artistic integrity while remaining safe.” She sees virtual performances as a silver lining to help bring in historically underrepresented artists. The other silver lining is the opportunity to hear from artists, and incorporate community suggestions such as the We See You W.A.T. (White American Theater) document. Selemon says equity “is something we need urgently in this moment. There is no other way forward.”
For mentors, Selemon lists Shelley Delaney (her acting teacher at Ohio University), her mother, and Brian Evans, her voice and speech teacher in college. “He fostered the love of language in myself.” For up-and-coming artists, she recognizes Neel McNeill and Sophiyaa Nayar of Definition Theatre and actor-singer Mariah Copeland.
Kamille Dawkins was pleasantly surprised to be enthusiastically voted in as interim artistic director of Strawdog by her company peers, who saw that she was already doing most of the job anyway: serving as co-ensemble manager, the diversity, equity, and inclusion committee chair, and managing conversations between the board, the previous artistic director, and the ensemble. So how did Strawdog achieve a healthy culture where Dawkins’s contributions could be celebrated and rewarded organically?
Dawkins says, “We have been trying to sculpt the company so that it’s more ensemble-led. We are finding that, when the ensemble gets to make the decisions, they are usually looking out for their fellow artists and trying to make the right choices that go beyond just the business aspect of things.” Strawdog is not only presenting a virtual season, but also plans to utilize bold social justice initiatives, ranging from donating a portion of ticket sales to different service organizations, to directly giving back to the Chicago community.
Two of Dawkins’s favorite mentors are Sonita Surratt and Kemati J. Porter at eta Creative Arts Foundation. “It’s amazing how other Black women who are older than you encourage you to go even further.” Artists that she looks forward to working with include Brianna Buckley, Marcus D. Moore, and Wardell Julius Clark. “I gravitate towards artists who use their voice to speak out about injustices, and who make sure the art they create is helping that.”
As Regina Victor steps into the artistic director position of Sideshow Theatre, they are one of the few trans people to lead a Chicago theater company–a bit of information which has proven challenging to fact-check. (Will Davis served as artistic director for American Theater Company before it folded in 2018.) Ironically, the difficulty tracking down this information speaks to the need for more diverse theatrical journalistic coverage–an area where Victor has already led the charge, launching the publication Rescripted (of which I am a contributor).
Upon starting with Sideshow on October 1, Victor’s first order of business will be figuring out “How do we take care of our people first, on every level? How do we consider safety? How do we take care of people without shutting our doors? How do we provide new opportunities for people? Because that is how I got into Sideshow, through their new play program. I want to make sure that the pipeline is still flowing.”
Victor thinks that the culture of exceptionalism can be detrimental to creating progress within BIPOC communities. “We are fighting so hard to do things for the first time and because of that, people often want to sit on the sidelines to see if it works out, [to see] if we will be the exception, rather than leaning in and helping.”
Speaking to that pipeline, Regina cites a long list of mentors that they have had the privilege to work in fellowship with, including Steppenwolf artistic director Anna Shapiro, Azuka Theatre founder Raelle Myrick-Hodges, former Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew, Daniel Alexander Jones, and Court Theatre. “They were the first people to give me a staff position as a producer.” In terms of future and current leaders, they list Michael Kaiser, Ian Damont Martin of Haven Chicago, and Ken-Matt Martin.
Donterrio Johnson, the artistic director at PrideArts, sees this watershed moment as an opportunity “to show Blackness on our stages that isn’t the ‘normal’ Blackness seen in theater. Chicago theaters often stage shows that deal with Black pain, and there is a place for that, but there are so many shows that are a celebration of Blackness that I am interested in bringing into the fold.” In response to COVID, PrideArts has begun renovating the lobby space, getting rid of old furniture and carpeting, and redoing the bathrooms, as well as imagining smaller shows that will help future audiences and actors to feel safe.
When asked about something that could radically change the Chicago theater community, Johnson answers “Communication. What I would love to see is the community banding together and finding ways to work with each other.” The mentors who provided creative guidance and inspiration during his career include Brenda Didier and Jermaine Hill. When he reflects on the next generation of leaders, he lists David Robbins and Jos N. Banks as people who are currently making their mark.
Mikael Burke, the associate artistic director at About Face Theatre, is looking forward to shaping the new play development program, along with educational initiatives that work to decenter whiteness. “I have the great fortune of being in this position at one of the very few queer-oriented companies in town, where I will have direct impact to guide how we are engaging with the up-and-coming generation to foster and create responsible artists who are prepared to step into the world and put an emphasis on BIPOC queer storytelling.” Burke is excited that he has agency to steer the ship to ensure that the product About Face develops is truthful and beneficial to everyone and not just the few white artists who already have ample resources.
In terms of mentors, Burke points to Ann Joseph-Douglas, and his graduate training at the Theatre School of DePaul, specifically Lisa Portes (head of directing), Damon Kiely (head of performance), and most impactfully, Phyllis E. Griffin, the first Black theater professional he had the opportunity to work for as an assistant director, in a room where the entire production was Black. “She had a greater impact on me as a human than she will ever truly understand. She helped me understand my potential as a Black queer artist. I am forever grateful and indebted to her for that.”
When thinking about the next generation of artists on the come up, he mentions a trio: Herbert White II, Leah Brock, and Sir King Castro, who have founded a creative hub called BLK Uncommon. As Burke muses on changes that could prove transformative for the Chicago community, he thinks there should be term limits on artistic leadership positions. “I don’t believe there is one human being at the head of a cultural organization who can be as in touch with his community ten years later as he was when he first started. A decade is more than enough time to do so much good work and pave the way for someone else to pick up the mantle.”
Picking up one such heavy mantle is Anthony LeBlanc, who stepped into the role of interim executive producer of the Second City upon the departure of longtime former owner and producer Andrew Alexander amidst calls for equity. “As an artist who has been a comedian for 20-plus years, you see that some things are cyclical, but you start to see the point where the patterns are starting to break.” Drawing a line from Ferguson, to the #MeToo movement, to the BLM movement, he sees a new sustained momentum that won’t peter out. “Not only is this [work] worth it, but there’s a possibility of seeing the change that you are working for while you can still experience it.”
When asked about those who provided a helping hand along the way, LeBlanc mentions the Black performers who were at Second City when he started performing, including Claudia Wallace, Keegan-Michael Key, David Pompeii, and John Hildreth, who provided emotional support weathering microaggressions from white colleagues in the greater comedy community at crucial junctures in his career, and his mother. “I grew up in southeast Texas and my parents grew up in the Jim Crow South. One mantra that I often say in rehearsals that I learned from her is that she was someone who followed the rules, so that when you break the rules, it means something.” To that point, LeBlanc muses on the audition process and how actors often leave the room never knowing why they weren’t cast. “Do we have to do it that way?”
“I want to create a place where you not only reduce the need to struggle, but you also support those folks to find their voice to continue to persevere.” Mentioning up-and-coming leaders in the Chicago artistic community, LeBlanc names Asia Martin, an actor and writer who recently presented a show at the Kennedy Center, and me, the author of this article. (I am an instructor at the Second City and LeBlanc was my first Black improv instructor.)
Not every theater has been behind the curve on equity. As a matter of fact, some, like Congo Square, have been quietly leading for years, and its appointment of Charlique C. Rolle as managing director is a continuation of a long history of Black leadership. “Starting a new job in the middle of a pandemic is wild and crazy. It has been exciting coming into this amazing company that has been producing for over 20 years, being really grounded and rooted in the Chicago community, creating a platform for Black voices.”
Reflecting on the differences between working in predominantly white and predominantly Black spaces, Rolle notes that, in white spaces, “There’s a sense that my Blackness or my culture is an exciting convenience . . . Coming to Congo, there’s an innate freedom; you don’t have to ‘put on’ just to be yourself.”
Rolle continues, “We aren’t in the middle of a white theater trying to get them to understand and to hear us. This is our heart, our mission. This is who we are. There is no separation for us. In the midst of all of this uprising we are rooting and anchoring more deeply, so that the work we are producing, even in the digital space, still maintains that integrity where Black voices can be heard.” To that end, Congo Square is nurturing the next generation of Black artists and administrators through a series of industry training workshops to ensure sustainable community growth. “It’s not enough just to make sure people get into the space if they can’t keep the space.”
Rolle lists Richard Smith and Robert McKee of Inaside Chicago Dance as mentors (“They were able to see things in me that I was not able to see in myself”) as well as Jackie Taylor, founder of Black Ensemble Theater, and Vershawn Sanders-Ward, founder of Red Clay Dance. “They as leaders have made an impact on who I am and where I am in this moment.” Two up-and-coming leaders Rolle respects are writer-director-activists Kristiana Rae Colon and Sydney Chatman.
The oft-repeated adage in Black households that “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far” is evident in the substantial bodies of work that precede all of the artists interviewed for this article, illustrating that they have earned their titles in full. However, the realities of racism, even in liberal spaces, can unfairly paint notable successes by BIPOC artists as unearned tokenism to satisfy quotas. Fortunately, these leaders are unfazed by such racist sentiments.
Burke says, “If all of this hadn’t gone down, would there be six or seven of us taking positions all at the same time? Probably not. But I hear these kinds of things and I roll my eyes and sigh at how limited their worldview must be to feel that way.” Says Dawkins, “It’s bizarre to me to think that a company would even put themselves in jeopardy by giving a job to someone who isn’t qualified just for optics. Companies don’t do that, ever.”
LeBlanc passes on advice from one of his mentors. “If you are a person who is different from anyone else, you have to be good. If you got to that place, it’s because you deserved to get it.” Victor says, “I think we have an opening right now and we need to take as many positions as possible and not worry about things like tokenism. White supremacy will always devalue anything that any ‘minority’ has ever had.”
Selemon quips, “If people want to think that, let them think that. That’s not my concern.”
Succinctly, Johnson says: “Watch us work.” v