Shepsu Aakhu, a founding member of MPAACT (Ma’at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre) has crafted many of the company’s shows over the past 32 years. But I’m not sure I’ve seen one as personal as his current world premiere, Ride or Die, now at the Greenhouse Theater Center under the direction of the legendary Chuck Smith.
Ride or Die Through 11/20: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-404-7336, greenhousetheater.org, $22-$40
Presented as a sort of theatrical diary of Aakhu’s experiences in the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown and the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the slayings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the piece incorporates close-up images of flowers Aakhu took during numerous bike rides over the first months of the pandemic, accompanied by his entries tracing his thoughts and reactions to what was going on in the world. (He called the 200 entries “Project Uplift,” and shared them along the way with a few friends, including Smith.)
Sometimes those trips took him to predominantly white neighborhoods, where inevitably questions of personal safety arose. (Would a paranoid homeowner call the cops?) Often he was on the lakefront trail, officially closed by order of Mayor Lightfoot. But as he found out, the cops didn’t care enough to get out of their cars to chase him away.
His stories are told in an intertwining fashion by five ensemble members of various races and genders, all dressed in identical black athletic pants and gray hoodies. But they’re not so much a choral construct as aspects of his own psyche, interrogating each other as if Aakhu is setting up Socratic dialogues with himself to figure out the world going mad (and trying to stop the madness) around him.
Along the way, as the flowers survive the extremes of Chicago weather, he reminds us (and himself) that they are both delicate and tough. He explores the evolution of the story of the magical “genie” over time. And he tries to understand the events of January 6. “We can’t impeach an entire country,” he notes—a pointed reminder that Trump wasn’t the cause of the disease of white supremacy and authoritarianism; he just gave permission for a frighteningly large number of people to give it their full-throated devotion.
There will be any number of pandemic plays in the years to come, to be sure. But Aakhu’s deeply personal account, rendered with grace, passion, and wit by Smith’s ensemble, provides an important snapshot of one Black man’s experiences, filtered through isolation, nature, protests, and family. At the end, the ensemble tells us, “We are all leaving rehab and rejoining society,” and it’s a pretty accurate way of summing up how the last couple of years have felt.