A political, cultural and racial dialogue bounced all over the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater on Sunday evening. It arose among a panel of artistic directors, among their subsequent interaction with audience members and most compellingly, among the characters of three short, minority-written plays performed onstage.
About 150 people attended the event to explore how theater, an art form so integral to Chicago's identity, can act as a catalyst for dialogue, expanded thought and social change.
The root question discussed lay in the title of the event, called "The Art of the Political: Can the Stage Be More Than Entertainment?"
The unanimous answer appeared to be yes.
"All theater is political," Coya Paz, an event panelist and co-founder of Proyecto Latina, said. "If it's not challenging an idea, it's not theater."
Fellow panelist Timothy Douglas, the artistic director at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, said that "just walking into a theater is political."
The event, part of the WBEZ Chicago Public Media's (91.5-FM) Off-Air Series, purposely framed questions of race and politics within the lens of theater in part because, said Breeze Richardson, executive producer of the Off-Air Series, "There's been a disconnect in culture today of what role theater could have."
The evening treated the term "political" less in the electoral sense and more in the sense of personal identity. The conversation returned regularly to culture, race and the amount of diversity and community representation in Chicago's theater scene, perhaps because of the content of the three plays shown and the diverse demographic of the artistic directors on the panel, which also included Chay Yew of Victory Gardens Theater and whose conversation was moderated by WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore.
The panel discussion ebbed and flowed around three plays that were commissioned for the event: "On Principle," by Terrance T. Brown, which explored various treatments of the "N-word" within the context of an elementary school setting; "Helpline," by Anita Chandwaney, which broke down prejudices between an Indian American and Indian woman within the context of outsourcing; and "Purchasing Power," by Benjamin V. Marshall, which explored society's racial assumptions within the metaphorical context, complete with slavery-related undertones, of a black man being able to buy a white man from a store.
Brown, who was born on the South Side and now lives in Evanston, said before the performance that he wanted the chance to place the N-word and the debate surrounding it "in the theater setting and to ask a question about the word and to make people talk about it a little bit more. It gets buried, and people would rather not talk about it and ignore it. I wanted to give three different perspectives on the word and to not have a definitive answer."
Theater, the event panelists said, gives a forum to probe difficult topics that might not otherwise be brought up. It has the ability to take weighty topics and make thought-provoking points through metaphor and humor, all of which were woven throughout the three plays performed.
"People are so defensive, so scared," to have conversations about race, Paz said. "Theater is a place where you can test it."
Her responsibility, as well as that of other artistic directors, is to listen to what people need and trust the audience with artistic depth. Theater, she went on, needs to reflect people's realities in both content and character.
"I know a lot of people who don't go to plays in Chicago in part because they're not representative [of the community]," Paz said.
At the same time, Yew said, theater should try to probe the minds of audiences, to push them beyond just enjoying musical or entertainment aspects before letting their mind wander on to what they'll eat for dinner.
"I don't mind to them hating it," Yew said of his theater productions, "compared to them being bored."
Anna DeShawn, who came to see a friend perform in "On Principle," said that what struck her about the evening was that "there's still a lot of things to talk about when it comes to race, the N-word" and the legacy of slavery. "These things happen every day, but we move through life and don't challenge people."
DeShawn, 28, of Lakeview, said the prospect of seeing people of color perform and direct appealed particularly to her. It's incumbent upon audience members like her, she said, to absorb the political and racial discussion a theater production can offer.
"Theater is so upfront and personal," she said. "We want to be entertained. We want the big 'Boom!' and the Avatar-like, tangible effects. Theater takes a different type of dialogue and makes it available to people."