Back in 2016, I climbed up the narrow stairs at the Den Theatre in Wicker Park to see a young solo performer embody the residents of a memory care center in Dallas. Based on John Michael’s own two-year stint as an activity planner at such a center, Dementia Me took the form of a birthday party for a 90-year-old resident who doesn’t actually know it’s his birthday. The residents, represented by balloons with faces drawn on them, were all voiced by Michael.
The piece provided an early insight into the mix of black humor, empathy, and introspection (he calls himself “a trauma clown”) that Michael honed with his 2017 follow-up, Meatball Séance, produced at now-defunct Mary’s Attic. In that piece, Michael attempted to channel the spirit of his dead mother, Liz Colgin, by making her favorite meatball recipe during the show, while pulling various audience members onstage to play his boyfriend and assist with chopping garlic and parsley.
Meatball SéanceFri 9/9 and 9/16, 9:30 PM, Mon 9/12, 7:30 PM, The Raven Room at Redline VR, 4702 N Ravenswood, Ste. B, tickettailor.com, $15
Since that premiere, Michael has taken Meatball Séance around the world, with performances in Dallas, Saint Louis, Indianapolis, Orlando, Norway, Sweden, Winnipeg, Edinburgh, Ottawa, and Toronto. Along the way, he’s also experienced other losses that have deepened his connection to the show’s themes of confronting grief. His close friend, Ken Ballard, who is identified in the show as “Best Friend” and “Fun Monster,” died at the age of 43 in January of 2021. (A former Iowa Mr. Leather, Ballard’s death was the subject of a long tribute in Windy City Timesby Carrie Maxwell.) Michael has updated the show with references to Ballard’s passing, and he’s also working on another show (tentatively titled Spank Bank Time Machine) about their friendship.
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Meantime, Meatball Séance remains a way for Michael to keep alive the memory of his mother, who died in 2014. “I remember doing it and writing it because I watched—you know, all my life, there would be that trope in television where, when someone loses someone they love, they’re able to talk to them,” says Michael. “And I wasn’t able to do it when I lost my mom. I forgot all about her. People would comment when they first saw [Meatball Séance] that what they loved about the show was how well I was able to evoke her, despite having so little detail of what she was like. Everyone kept saying that that was the choice. It wasn’t the choice. But it came off that way. And it also led me into realizing when you make things universal and archetypal, people can see themselves in it. And when I say ‘Mom,’ every time in that show, eventually people start to think of their moms.”
In addition to her gift for making killer meatballs, the Mom we meet in Michael’s show also loves dancing around the kitchen to Fleetwood Mac—audience members who like to dance along make for particularly good participants. And as he’s done the show, Michael has found that more and more of his mom has returned to him.
“I’m able to make up what she would say about a situation now, but I wasn’t before. And I’m able to imagine conversations with her vividly now, but I wasn’t able to do it before. And I think the show is a subversive kind of approach to grieving in a different way. It’s so American to say, ‘Everyone grieves in their own way,’ which feels like code for ‘So let’s not talk about it.’”
Michael notes that doing the show after the COVID-19 shutdown and the loss of so many lives has added more heft to the material, even though he doesn’t address the pandemic directly. Ballard’s death wasn’t related to COVID, but Michael says, “When I lost my mom, I didn’t know what to do. And when I lost Ken, I knew what was gonna happen. I knew I was gonna, you know, be in a lot of pain, but I knew I was gonna be able to talk about how special he was to me around the world. In my underwear.” (Michael performs in an apron and sparkly briefs; when we talk, he asks me to point out that he actually got a sponsorship for his underwear from Andrew Christian.)
A good portion of the show is also about how erotic desire and the yearning for romantic connection can become even stronger in the wake of grief. Says Michael, “When someone you love leaves, you wanna make love, you wanna feel less alone. My best orgasm happened when I lost my mother, like right-right after. And we’re so scared to talk about that, but I mean, I think it’s really beautiful.”
Though audience participation isn’t everyone’s bag, Michael finds that, particularly since the shutdown, there is a hunger for that connection, too, and he says Meatball Séance is “like a manifesto of the kind of theater I wanna make. I mean, we didn’t do theater for so long and we missed it. We missed being together.”
Black Excellence Awards nominees announced
Earlier this week, the African American Arts Alliance (AAAA) of Chicago announced the nominations for the 22nd Annual Black Excellence Awards, established to honor “the outstanding works of art by African Americans in theater, dance, music, film, literature, visual arts, and digital media.”
In the theater category, the nominees included productions at Black Ensemble Theater (It’s Just Like Coming to Church, Grandma’s Jukebox); MPAACT (Pulled Punches); Congo Square (What to Send Up When It Goes Down); Court Theatre (Two Trains Running); Northlight Theatre (Intimate Apparel); TimeLine Theatre (Relentless); Writers Theatre (Pearl’s Rollin’ With the Blues: A Night With Felicia P. Fields); and Theater 47 (Living All Alone . . . the Phyllis Hyman Musical).
In dance, nominees included South Chicago Dance Theatre; Praize Productions; Vershawn Sanders-Ward of Red Clay Dance for Blackbird; Trevon Lawrence and Anthony Sampson for React; Kevin Iega Jeff of Deeply Rooted for Surrender; and Joel Hall for Four Women. Additionally, Muntu Dance Theatre will receive a special award in recognition of its 50th anniversary.
The awards will be presented Monday, November 14, at Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark. For information and tickets ($50), visit aaaachicago.org.