On February 16th, 2020, a number of film and theatre artists of MENASA (Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian) descent working in the Chicago community came together with the intention of collectively identifying issues facing our communities, and working towards transformational and actionable solutions. With over 50 community members in attendance, representing a diverse range of careers, specialties, and perspectives, the evening began with breaking bread and a large group discussion, moderated by Haven Chicago’s Artistic Director Ian Damont Martin. Using the principles from The Circle Way by Ann Linnea and Christina Baldwin to shape a non-hierarchical community conversation, the group conjointly drew up a Brave Space Agreement to set collective boundaries and intentions for the evening. Collective agreements and intentions serve not only to ensure safety of participants, but to allow for civil disagreement and foster challenging discussions with the goal that all members enter on as equal footing as possible.   

The first topic of conversation for our circle was to pinpoint actionable steps to combat the MENASA communities’ tendency to be classified as a monolith generally and by those with hiring and casting power. The conversation focused on personal agency and the empowerment of simply asking questions to the people in power. While honoring the ground gained by previous generations, this group understood one of the main reasons the MENASA communities are seen as a monolith is that most of the preexisting work that includes MENASA folx is made either by the white majority or with the white gaze in mind. A collective decision to always ask for better and to create our own content became the action items which bubbled to the surface.

We also identified that those two action items were impossible without first creating a meaningful community: a connection that exists outside the parameters of simply having a similar ancestral background. For example, it’s one thing to identify that an artistic position or role should go to a person of color or member of one of our communities; it’s another situation entirely to be able to send back a list of names of folx whose work best serves the project. We identified the need for a collective or organization that would keep our communities’ needs as the central focus and convening as such was the first step in laying that groundwork. Our communities are hungry for connection that moves whiteness away from the center; connection that allows for our complexities and diversity of thought to be our greatest strengths, not used against us as a tactic to force us to fall in line. The group broke out into smaller circles based on artistic specialty (Actors, Directors/Producers/Designers, Writers) to better source what actions and next steps could be accomplished within the power of each role. 

When looking at group divisions, we chose to group directors, producers and designers together --since they often work in tandem with each other and the producing (often white) institution-- when looking at power structures and the hierarchy of American theatre. There were more than three times as many performers as any other discipline, so we ended up with three Actor breakout groups, one for Directors/Producers/Designers and one for Writers.

Actor Group(s) Summary

As the career group with seemingly the least agency in our industry, when tasked to come up with actionable solutions regarding representation of the MENASA communities, actors focused on taking power back and dreaming up creative solutions to hold institutions accountable. 

  • While the overwhelming need for a community based organization to act as a safeguard against professional retaliation and blacklisting was clearly identified (following the model of a “(Non)-Equity Deputy”), actors also focused on individual actions that can be taken to upend power structures and advocate for themselves. 

    • Such actions included asking questions when auditions come up and not being afraid to say no to projects with teams that don’t center and honor MENASA voices. 

  • We identified the importance of feeling empowered to ask questions at every stage of the audition and production process to ensure cultural specificities are handled with intention, such as: “Why does this character wear hijab while they are in their home?” or “Why does my character need an accent?” “What sect of Islam do the characters practice and if they are different, how does that affect their relationship?”

  • In instances of being in the rehearsal room, there was a focus on the importance of asking for resources such as cultural consultants, dramaturgical support and language coaches and proper research to honor cultural nuance. Religious and cultural research, and the proper avenues to make that happen, are the only ways to avoid offensive generalizations.

  • Most resoundingly, these groups identified the importance of making our own content. A task which alone can feel massive and daunting, but with a strong foundation of our communities, can be the most rewarding step to a more representative future.

Director/Producer/Designer Group Summary

As the production team historically holds the most institutional power, it is our obligation as producers to advocate for our communities when we exist within and adjacent to artistic institutions. 

  • This can look like communicating to institutional leadership if a play is problematic and why; feeling empowered to say no or tell production to pull the play if need be; and recommending and budgeting for the right artists to serve the story (dramaturgs, cultural consultants, dialect coaches). 

  • The importance of a clear line of intra-community communication can also mitigate these issues. Group members mentioned that one strategy has been reaching out to other directors/producers/designers within one’s network when turning down a project. If multiple people turn down offers, one after another, it more effectively communicates that harmful projects will not be tolerated when it comes to work that features our communities. 

  • The production group highlighted the importance of thorough cultural research before the group is even in the room together. Research and consulting that prioritizes firsthand experience must be highlighted so that the room can be free to feel comfortable disagreeing and debating to achieve a stronger, deeply interrogated message. 

  • Directors and producers must empower and make space for actors to create and communicate boundaries in the room (and even more so when navigating rooms not led by people of color).

  •  A group of student producers joined our ranks and advocated for the importance of creating mentorship programs and interrogating how our standards of who has the authority to direct/play/design tend to change in educational settings. 

Mainly, the artistic team group identified the importance of understanding stereotypes (even within our own cultural blindspots) and unapologetically pushing for rooms devoid of them. We agreed as leaders of a production that an important way to end stereotyping is to cultivate rooms where any artist, no matter their position, feels safe identifying and working through the stereotypes together.

Writer Group Summary 

Since so many of the identified solutions exist in the realm of new work development, the group of writers came up with creative solutions that involved sharing power and advocating for our authentic voices. 

  • Much of that work begins with education and research, even on cultures that already feel fluent to us. Both as an honoring of the fact that we do not exist within a monolithic experience and respecting that personal identity is endlessly complicated. 

  • Inclusive collaboration can be an avenue to make work that lies in the human experience, not the stereotype: multiple readings, talkbacks with the community, intentional hiring, and using social media to find appropriate creators were offered as ways to make work that has the community in mind. This is also a way to connect with the community being written about, creating a dialogue that can bring up ideas that exist in our blindspots. 

  • Collaborating with folx in the room and empowering actors and cultural consultants to feel comfortable sharing in ownership of a new work is another way to ensure a holistic theatrical experience. Making sure these contributions are recognized in a just manner by way of inclusive billing, including these roles in the language of contracts, and profit sharing. 

  • Success was defined by this group as when actors can feel like they can own and feel comfortable in the words you wrote.

Questions/Concerns we were left with:

Rejoining and Sharing

Our evening ended with rejoining the main circle and sharing what we discovered together, and what we wanted to take away for the future of our collective:

  • There is a deep need for a community-based organization to act as a support and safeguard against professional retaliation and blacklisting.

  • Proper research to honor cultural nuance is the first step in all disciplines.

  • Feel empowered to ask questions and interrogate impact vs intent at any stage of the artistic process.

  • Feel empowered to say no. It is not your responsibility to fix a problematic piece of art.

  • Create our own work with each other.

There is work to be done, for the labor of bringing people together is no easy task, and seeing the beautiful faces of our people together in one room reminded us of that. The commitment to inclusivity, to surrendering ego for the empowerment of our siblings are efforts of decolonization, and take much unlearning. Our community seemed to be up to the challenge as we took a breath together and ended the meeting with one word reflections that rang of hope, ignition, and togetherness.

This video was developed to support those through the Corona Virus Pandemic 2020. Tips are suggestions and words to encourage those during a time of uncertainty. We hope you enjoy, find time to smile and do what you have to do to get through each day. You got this!

April 20, 2020

To be perfectly honest, we have been at loss about how to respond. Actually, I can only speak for myself – as producer and a member of The Chicago Inclusion project, I have been at a loss as to how to respond. We can’t do field trips to shows we’re excited about or hold readings in community centers and engage in person with new neighborhoods. Our unofficial mission is to get everyone in the same room, and for the time being that isn’t physically possible.

But I began to wonder what would bring comfort if it were possible. How do we stay connected? And one answer we came up with is just to be honest about where each of us are. Each of us are going through different ways of grieving, coping with anxiety, confronting change. But in acknowledging how different our processes are, by focusing on our own humanity and mortality we also realize how intrinsically similar we are. We learn this through the inclusive art that we applaud and try to create, but we are learning it more so now, in this surreal moment.


It has been our hope as an organization to repair and build relationships within our theater community. It is still possible to do that right now. In fact, it is necessary to try in whatever way we can, which has always been our tactic. It has always been our hope that by truly seeing and hearing each other and our stories, people would come away from an experience knowing they’re not alone.

All of that said, below is a conversation members of our staff had about where we are all in “all of this.” It is in no way meant to be prescriptive, doom and gloom or Pollyanna. It is our way of grappling with whatever-this-is together, far apart, until we can be in the same room again.

                                                                                                           - Emjoy Gavino, Executive Director 

Members of the The Chicago Inclusion Project:

Elana Elyce, Arti Ishak, Jessica Vann, Stephanie Diaz and Abhi Shrestha, quarantined in Chicago  

Emjoy Gavino, quarantined in Minneapolis

Charlie Hano, quarantined in New York City

Jeff Trainor, quarantined in Princeton

Behzad Dabu and Danny Bernardo, quarantined in Los Angeles

How are you doing?

Elana Elyce: Fine. 

Arti Ishak: Okay.

Jess Vann: I am surprisingly doing okay... considering.

Charlie Hano: Most of the time, I’m okay. I take it minute by minute. 

Stephanie Diaz: In the “big picture” of things, pretty good. I consider myself lucky-- my partner can still work full-time, I happen to really enjoy cooking, and we were forced to move recently, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because the apartment we’re in now has a lot of light and a balcony-- luxuries that have become unexpected lifelines.

     In the “little picture” (read: my brain), I have, like most everyone I know, good days and not-so-good days. Many of my family and close friends are healthcare workers --nurses, doctors, first responders-- and my mom lives alone 2000 miles away, so my mind is on them a lot.

Jeff Trainor: My family is doing the best we can.

Danny Bernardo: Doing alright. Better than some, worse than some. Days of extreme anxiety and panic and days of "I'm gonna be ok".

Behzad Dabu: Meh, I have good days and bad days.  Sometimes I find myself in a whirlwind of anxiety and all I want to do is pop an edible and stay in bed all day.  Then I have some days where I find the rest refreshing and laugh a lot and feel free without responsibility. Then I think of finances and get scared all over again.  It helps to know that almost everyone I know is in the same boat. 

Emjoy Gavino: I fluctuate between feeling numb and optimistic, sometimes picking up other people’s anxiety and feeding off of it, sometimes trying to subdue it, always feeling grateful for what I have in this moment, then feeling guilty about it. Then eating cheese.

Abhi Shrestha: Working hard to be present. Being present is hard. But taking things moment by moment. A key tenet of the educational pedagogy we use at Steppenwolf is “living in ambiguity” and I am really trying to lean into that.

Do you hate that question right now? 

Emjoy: I think it depends on who’s asking me and when they’re asking. To be honest, I’ve never known how to answer that question.  So I typically deflect.

 Arti: I find it redundant and impossible to answer completely truthfully these days.

Jess: Nah! I still think it’s important to ask.  But leave it up to the person receiving the question what they want to disclose. I think it’s important we are asking the question but also be open for the response given. People are vulnerable right now and needing someone to listen is important. So those asking, I hope you have the emotional capacity to receive. 

Jeff: Not at all.  Apps like Marco Polo and FaceTime have been helpful in letting us all check in on each other. 

Danny: Nope. It's important to check in with folks when you can. I mean, sometimes I may not want to answer that question right away but sometimes I desperately need that check-in without realizing.

Charlie: Yes, but I think it’s a necessary evil. We’re all scared, but we all want to take care of each other, as much as we can. 

Behzad:  Haha, it is funny... that question is asked a lot... "what have you been doing to occupy your time?" and I keep responding the same way. But how I feel is constantly shifting... so. Yeah. This is the new normal. 

Abhi: I like any moment where we can take a step back and be reflective.

Steph: Not at all. It can be hard to answer succinctly, though. Sometimes it’s hard to even think about in a way that can be articulated verbally. But I don’t hate it because it means someone has reached out, which is more appreciated now than ever. I definitely like it better than, “So what are you working on…?” haha!

Elana: Not when people genuinely want to know.

What has this last month been like for you? (or, what is a normal day like for you?)

Steph:  I don’t even know how to answer that-- every day is surprisingly different, but in the most banal ways.

Behzad: Well -- I keep telling myself, "okay be productive! When will you find the time to do all these things again?" but now I look back at this month... and so many of those things on my list... I haven't done them. I am finding it much harder to find my ambition, to find my motivation. Even though I have more time now, I have had less desire to work. I don't quite know why that is, but also then I start to dislike myself for being so unproductive with "no excuse" and it just starts a cycle of negative talk. SO, I have found some things i love. 

       ONE, I bought a bike and I go on bike rides. TWO, I take loooong daily walks.  Like long. Through the hills behind my place... no set path.. random rights and lefts and look at the flowers and the big mansions and dream of living in them...looking at backyards and the views of the hills and the city... that's the beauty of L.A., almost everyday has been gorgeous and sunny out and those long walks have saved me.  I have discovered the beauty of my neighborhood. And I got my taxes done

Danny:  The last month has been a lot like everyone else's. Establishing a new normal for the time being (not forever!) and trying to do the best I can to flatten the curve. When the "Safer At Home" order first hit LA, I panic-bought and am now fully stocked on Pinoy pantry essentials for a good few months. But now I crave food I didn't buy so I brave the grocery store every week and a half or so. And I've drank more in Zoom happy hours this month than I have in the last six months combined so my booze budget is up, lol.

Elana: I like working from home. I don't always get up as early as I do in regular times. I work out while listening to the governor's daily briefing.  There are some general things I thought I'd have done by now, but haven't. Although I did finally make some progress.

Arti: The last month has alternated between going down the rabbit hole of every worst case scenario both personally and globally, or trying to think about nothing in order to pretend I'm on a staycation.

Charlie: It’s kind of been a blur. NYC is intense and scary right now. It feels like the one thing I do every day now is have dinner with my roommates & all five of us will watch something on TV.

Jess:  It’s been interesting. Being told to stay home hits differently than having the choice to stay home, lol. But knowing that it’s to save lives is what’s important to me. I am actually a big introvert, so I recharge by myself, so this has been one big recharge. But I am also able to release some of that by working out or even talking with friends via phone. I also have therapy pretty regularly during this to help with my mental health. 

Jeff: It’s been rough and I don’t know anyone who isn’t trying to figure it out each day. A normal day will consist of helping my daughter (age 5) with her school work while trying to keep my son (age 2) occupied and trying to keep them from bursting into the room where my wife is working.  

     I’m running the social media for the local toy store I work for (JaZams Toys and Books in Princeton, NJ). Since I can’t be in the store, I’m doing what I can to let people know how they can support a local store.   

Emjoy:  At first it was oddly familiar because being a theater artist, I am frequently on unemployment (much to my parents’ dismay)-- I already am aware of what it feels like to not have a structured schedule, to not have a project to look forward to or when my next job will be.  I know that I will get stress hives and lose sense of time and not sleep well and emotionally eat and that’s just part of the process. So the last month has been a lot of that. But there are obviously added stressors because of the state of the world and in particular our industry and what to do with that anxiety has been tougher to navigate, also because my spouse works in theater administration and has been working from home so I can’t really escape the conversations that are being had. 

       That said, I’ve tried different things. The first week, I gave myself a set schedule.  That was horrible and I hated it so much. The next week I gave myself a list of tasks that I would try to accomplish every day in whatever order and that worked better for me. The tasks would include casting work for Gift Theatre, answering and organizing emails for half an hour, updating my professional website, but also stuff like walking my dog around the lake, reading a short story, baking a cake, eating the cake, etc.  

Abhi: I work in the education department at Steppenwolf and it’s been a whirlwind. The leadership at Steppenwolf has been really great about being super transparent about the state of things and continues to loop us in every week with more information. Some weeks have been more hopeful than others… My team has hit the ground running trying to figure out how we can still serve our various communities. We’ve been putting out virtual programming every week for the last month. It’s been really great, and really tiring. We are doing what we can to support our communities as best we can (our students, our classroom teachers, our teaching artists, our community partners). We’ve been in communication with them to really try and understand what each community is feeling like they need and how we can support that, even if it’s just creating space to discuss our mutual frustrations and fears.

       A normal day for me looks like doing some yoga and breathing in the morning, making avocado toast with smoked salmon, a poached egg, thyme, sumac, and sesame oil – hopping on my computer and having virtual meetings starting at 10am, facilitating online workshops for teens and educators (usually close to 100+ participants), having lunch at some point, then having the rest of my night devoted to playing animal crossing or boggle with my partner.

        It’s been hard. But I am also privileged and lucky to have a job for now and I am trying to make the most out of that.

Have your priorities shifted? What are you focusing on right now?

Elana:  Not really; making sure I still eat clean the majority of the time and just not falling off day work-wise.

Jeff:  I’m focusing on my family and my community.  

Abhi:  My priorities right now are focused on supporting my communities. My students, my educators, my fellow artists, and community organizers. It is focused on making sure I take care of myself so I can take care of those I love.

Charlie: This is the first time in my adult life where I can’t define myself by my ambition. It’s uncharted territory for me, and I’ve been learning how to nurture other aspects of myself. 

Arti: I'm submitting self tapes when possible and working on projects that were already in motion before this started, but honestly I'm using this time to enjoy everything I say I miss when I'm too busy to be at home. I hang out with my partner whom I rarely got to see for months before this despite living together. I'm focusing on cooking and working out. I have been learning to cook and bake a lot of treats I used to love to order in to try and create healthier habits. As trite as it sounds, working out regularly is one of the only things getting me through this time. It is the only hour in the day when I'm not actively focusing on calming my internal worries because my brain is totally distracted and engaged.

Jess: My priorities have not changed. Maintaining some sort of normalcy in my home is what I am focusing on. So making sure I work out, which has already been a part of day-to-day before covid; doing something that brings me joy (talking to friends, a funny video, something). One thing I try to focus on is not beating myself up if I am not “productive”. If I can end each day feeling fulfilled in my day, I feel good. Even if that’s sending that e-mail for work, taking a shower, cooking a meal, I still got things done. Sometimes that also means staying off some of the social media platforms so that I am not comparing myself to others. 

Steph: The recent, untimely passing of Diane Rodriguez has made me really examine myself and my practice: how I can be of greater service to my community? How can I best pay forward her legacy of generosity and massive contributions to the art form? It’s been weighing pretty heavily on me.

        Like everyone else who is primarily a performer or designer, I’m not working, and nobody knows when that will change, and to what extent. So instead of focusing on work (finding it, doing it, helping others get it), I’m trying to take this time to develop discipline in a few of the (many) areas where I sorely lack it. For me this looks like creating schedules and routines, something I’ve mostly relied on someone other than myself to provide.

Danny: I wouldn't say shifted, I'd say refocused. The biggest reason I moved back to LA after having lived and worked in Chicago for 16 amazing years was to be closer to my family. The proximity to the Film/TV industry is a definite perk, but it was always to be closer to family. So now, my weekly excursions are hyper focused on getting my mom the medical care she needs while being very safe and cautious cuz she's in a high risk group. I wish I could say that I've been ridiculously productive in writing but honestly I've been just getting so accustomed to my trauma brain (it's a thing, google it) that I've just allowed myself to be. On the plus side, I've always preferred self-tapes for Film/TV and that's all we're doing.

Emjoy: The last few months, I’ve been away from my husband because he had to take a job in Minnesota and so I sped over to be with him and our dog before we all got the shelter in place orders. So a more immediate shift has been finding ways to take care of them on a day to day basis. But my overall priorities remain the same - family, community, finding ways to uplift people with art. It’s just that my ways of interacting with those priorities have changed and continue to change.  

Behzad: Yes they have. I mean I realized how much of my life is my work.  I mean, now that work has been taken away from me. It made me realize how much of my life focus is my work. And man... it's like. A LOT. I am single, I live alone.  So I think it has forced me into some introspection about what I really want out of life. 

Who or what has given you motivation? 

Elana: All the same people/stuff that did before. 

Danny: My mom and my dog. Plain and simple. Caring for them is what is getting me through this pandemic.

Behzad: I've been listening to great podcasts, watching great TV, listening to amazing music (the live concert versions of my favorite songs)... going down some of those rabbit holes has been fantastic. 

Steph: The biggest motivator for me right now is my brain’s own tendency to sort of eat itself by playing out self-destructive patterns if it doesn’t have something specific to engage with-- the unnecessary misery of negative mental loop-de-loops is really pushing me to create mindfulness and order in my days. There is a certain amount of necessary self-reflection happening right now, of course, but there’s a place where it can cross over into self-flagellation, and that’s the place I’m trying not to live. Some days are easier than others!

 One great way I’ve found to address a few of these things simultaneously is by attending all the various fitness, yoga and meditation classes my friends have been offering-- it helps me feel connected to them, gets me moving and out of my head, gives my day/week some structure, and also helps them keep their businesses afloat. I try to take a different class each day.

Jess: Truthfully? Creating content for my social media platforms and leaning into that for work and other projects I am a part of! 1) I enjoy it  and 2) it keeps me being creative in a way that is different from my usual. When I finish a content idea, I feel good about myself! Because it’s something I did and feel proud of. Even if it’s a silly little Tik Tok video, lol. It keeps my brain active. I don’t know, that’s just me!

Charlie: Three times a week I volunteer with the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. I spend two hours in the morning packing food to be shipped off to people who need it. It’s kept me grounded and it’s a way to engage with my body and the world.

Arti: Nothing has convinced me of the power and utter magic of live performance more than seeing it

 attempt to be adapted to Zoom. It has given me so much to think about in terms of what makes theatre meaningful to the human experience, what is its place in society as a storytelling art form, and how can we utilize its highest potential to invoke imagination? I literally cannot wait to get to make theatre again.

Emjoy: The Gift Theatre has been an incredible source of motivation and inspiration in the last month. Whether it’s continuing to cast a show we’re hopeful to put up at some point this season, having difficult but necessary conversations with the staff, hopping in on virtual readings via zoom, marco polo-ing with ensemble members about food, having an artistic home is not something I take for granted and has given me renewed purpose in all of this. 

Abhi: My co-workers – the education department at Steppenwolf. They’ve been busting ass to do what we can for those who we are in community with.

       A morning ritual. I’m telling you, some breathing, intention setting, and a poached egg will do wonders.  Seeing how community unfolds in miraculous ways during a tragedy. (Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope in the Dark” is a great book that speaks to this)

Jeff: A few months ago, I had started training at Princeton Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the foundation that they were helping me build within myself has kept me wanting to stay in shape. Exercising and showing my kids how to exercise is important to me. Also, keeping room open for dance parties any time in the apartment is necessary to get through the day. 


Who or what has given you joy and hope?

Elana: All the same people/stuff that did before, and my new weighted jump ropes (joy).

Arti: I'm hopeful by the sheer acts of kindness and grace I've seen exchanged between folks, strangers and friends alike. In a time surging with panic and distress it seems there's also a wave of kindness that has risen up to meet it.

Abhi: I think I generally am a hopeful person. I try to tend hope in my daily life cause that’s the only thing that keeps me going.  Poetry. Always poetry.

Cooking. What a gift it is. It brings me such delight.

Charlie: I’ve been teaching myself how to bake! I used to dabble, but now I’m able to make it a priority. Tonight I’m making a French silk pie, wish me luck!   As for things that have given me hope...everyone I know who can be generous (whether that’s with their time or their money), is being generous. I’m very proud of my friends and my city. 

Emjoy: I have 2 text chains, 3 facebook message chains and at least 4 marco polo threads where we just share pictures and recipes and videos of things we’re eating, things we’re going to eat, things we’re going to make, things we want other people to make for us. The fact that a few of these threads existed before we were in quarantine speaks to how much nourishing and creating dishes and sharing meals was and remains a huge part of my life. Between having virtual dinners and happy hours with friends, making dishes out of pantry staples and taking pictures of them and blogging about it for the three people who read it gives me immense joy. Food is my love language and I’m so grateful that I can continue to use it right now. 

         Casting from virtual auditions during all of this is so weird and of course I would rather see people in person, but seeing everyone's work has given me a lot of hope and comfort.  I love watching people succeed and it makes me feels closer to the community I am so far away from.

Jess: Talking to my family and my friends I have known for most of my adult life and even childhood. Being in those spaces through whatever Zoom or Google hangout gives me joy. It lets me relax and just be myself. So that I can recharge for the next day.

Danny: I can't begin to tell you how blessed I am to belong to so many families. I'm lucky to have family to talk to, a dog to cuddle with, and roommates to talk to face to face (at 6 feet apart, yes even in the house). But the fact that I can connect with my family from my high school days (Las Vegas Academy for the Arts) as well as friends in Chicago, my Coeurage Theatre family, my East West Players MAMMA MIA family, and so many groups all through Zoom has been so helpful to my heart. On a Zoom happy hour I was just on with one of my cliques from high school (we dubbed ourselves the Sailor Scouts, guess which one I was), my friend who now lives in Hawaii and doesn't get back to the mainland much was saying how awesome it was that she gets to see us all so much more now.

      And while this is good for right now, it's not a substitute for real human interaction. Don't get me wrong, when we get to a new semblance of public normal I will still have these video chats with friends from far away cuz how awesome is it that we can? But what's giving me hope is someday soon, I'll get to hug the people I love so much for real. Especially my mom.

Steph:  There are so many tiny domestic joys that I’ve never had (or taken) the time to observe and enjoy before, in their true fullness and bounty. And as bleak as things may be right now, I feel such hope in the countless kindnesses I am privileged to observe or personally experience every day-- between strangers, neighbors, friends, loved ones. 

       Also, I have a Sasquatch-like kitten with permanent stankface who is very entertaining. This morning, he was out on the balcony and I think the neighbors discovered him for the first time. Their coos of delight --”OMG he’s so cute!! He’s just staring at us!!” will stay with me all day, maybe all week.

Jeff: The group at JaZams have been incredible. While working to keep their local toy store running, they are also donating 5% of each purchase to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) with the code 5for5.

       Exercising, whatever it is you can do at home, is so important for all of us.  

You can find a bunch for free bodyweight exercises on YouTube and Google.    

       Checking in with friends has been keeping spirits high. Every week, I do a free story time on Instagram for anyone that wants an activity to do with their kids. I loved Reading Rainbow when I was a kid and I’m trying to do that for the families that I’ve met in Princeton:  @storytimewithJeff. Also, watching the John Wick films and Community…I mean, so good. Just so good.  

Behzad: Knowing that we are all in this together has helped me. And I don't mean that in the cheesy way. I mean, quite literally, that no one person is alone in this. And also realizing that I live in a great city, I have friends and family, I have a nice apartment, I have food, I have a cute kitten. I am relatively healthy.  So, trying to remember all the things to be grateful for has helped. 

Anything else?

Emjoy: I can’t wait to see all of you again. I can’t wait to eat a big meal and get glared at by the other people in the restaurant because we’re laughing too loudly. I can’t wait to see how the brilliant minds in our community will innovate and create and tell stories through all this and to see how we redefine ourselves and our art form to adapt to a changed world.  

Jeff: Call and check in on each other. Eventually, we will all be able to see each other in person again. Do what you can to help out each other and yourself.  

Good luck everybody. I look forward to the hangouts and gatherings that will be happening again one day soon.  

Abhi: I think I always turn to this Maria Popova quote around hope and feel it is REALLY relevant right now -- “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.”


March 10, 2020

Continuing our support of productions that embrace inclusion for artists and audiences, below are shows open or opening soon in Chicago that we feel are moving our community forward.  As a staff, we have not necessarily seen all of these shows but are really glad they are happening.

We are excited to list shows that offer some or all of the following:
- Non-traditional casting

- Accessible storytelling

- Variety of perspectives on the design and production teams

- Playwrights/Directors from underrepresented communities

- Diversity in season programming

Buy tickets to shows that celebrate inclusion. Then write to producers and tell them you want more of it. Decision makers are led by numbers and this is one way you can make a difference.​

The Neighborhood Theatre presents The Children of Edgar and Nina

Written by Jarrett McCreary

Directed by Pernell Myers

through March 14

at Ravenswood Fellowship Church, 4511 N Hermitage Ave

Felix and Luc are wandering through different paths of what it means to be black. When those paths cross, what they learn may be more than meets the eye. Fall through time as Venus uses her magic of music and poetry to explore emotion, intimacy, and what it truly means to be vulnerable in the modern world.

The cast, artistic and production team include Jasmine Jordan, Grant Landau-Williams, MIchael Ashfrod, Pernell Myers, LIlia Houshmand and Jyreika Guest

Tickets are $Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door or here

**NOTE: This is a heartbreaking and magical story of Black queer love: directed, written, and performed by Black queer folx. In celebration of that, Thursday 3/12 is The Neighborhood's Black Theatre night where they're offering free tickets to black audience members.  If you identify and would like to attend, please use promo code NinasKids **

Aguijón Theater presents Kiev

Written by Sergio Blanco

Directed by Abel González Melo

Through March 15

at Aguijón Theater 2707 N Laramie Ave

After a long absence, Eiren Badenweiler returns with her children to the abandoned family summer residence, to reunite with a past full of ghosts, grudges, and secrets. Aguijón Theater proudly presents the U.S. premiere of the prestigious Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco, with this acclaimed work that is loosely inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

The cast, artistic and production team include Israel Balza, Rosario Vargas, Oswaldo Calderón, Marcela Muñoz, Sándor Menéndez, Augusto anacopulos and Maydi Diaz.

Tickets are $15 are can be purchased here

A Red Orchid Theatre presents Do You Feel Anger

1531 N. Wells St

Written by Mara Nelson Greenberg

Directed by Jess McLeod

Through March 15

Sofia was recently hired as an empathy coach at a debt collection agency-and clearly, she has her work cut out for her. These employees can barely identify what an emotion is, much less practice deep, radical compassion for others. And while they painstakingly stumble towards enlightenment, someone keeps mugging Eva in the kitchen. An outrageous comedy about the absurdity-and the danger-of complicity in a world where some people's feelings matter more than others'.

The cast, artistic and production team include Sadieh Rifai, Larry Grimm, Levi Hollloway, Paul Dillon, Bernard Gilbert, Emjoy Gavino, Jennifer Jelsema, Stephanie Heller, Alex Mallory, Christina Gorman, Dominique Zaragoza, Elenna Sindler, Jackie Londino Day, Jeffrey Kmeic, Jeffrey Levin, Jess McLeod, Jim Moore, Karen Kawa, Mike Durst, Nate Dion, Rebecca Jeffords, Shade Murray ,Stephanie Cluggish, Ayssette Muñoz, Alex Levy, Mark Vallarta and Casey Searles

Tickets are $18-$30 are can be purchased here

Griffin Theatre presents Mlima's Tale

at The Schwartz Stage at Raven Theatre 6157 North Clark St

Written by Lynn Nottage

Directed by  Jerrell L Henderson

Through March 21

at Pride Arts Center – 4139 N. Broadway

Taking us on a journey from the heart of Africa and around the world, MLIMA’S TALE is the story of Mlima, a magnificent elephant trapped in the clandestine international ivory market. Nottage, who won the Pultizer Prize for her plays Ruined and Sweat, brings us a powerful story that makes us question whether unconditional virtue is nonexistent within the international system of economic power, culture and politics.

Cast and production team include Ben Chang, David Goodloe, Sarah Lo, Lewon Johns, Colin McShane, Chris Pow, Michael Turretine, Joy Ahn, Caitlin McLeod, Jared Gooding, L.J. Luthinger, Jacinda Ratcliffe, Jonathan Mayo, Sara Beaman, Brian Sprague, Catherine Miller, Ryonn Gloster and Ahmed Al-Hassan

Tickets are $25-40 can be purchased here.

Congo Square Theare presents Day of Absence

at Richard Christiansen Theatre, Victory Gardens 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.

Written by Douglas Turner Ward

Directed by  Anthony Irons

Through March 22

Winner of coveted Vernon Rice and Obie Awards, ‘Day of Absence’ recounts the uproarious emergencies that occur when a Southern town is faced with the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of all its Black citizens. ‘Day of Absence’ was written and directed by Douglas Turner Ward in 1965 and helped launch the New York-based Negro Ensemble Company, whose overall mission is to present live theatre performances by and about Black people to a culturally diverse audience that is often underserved by the theatrical community. The play is traditionally performed as a ‘reverse minstrel show,’ with Black actors in whiteface.

The cast includes Ronald L. Conner, Ann Joseph and Kelvin Roston, Jr., joined by Jordan Arredondo, Meagan Dilworth, Bryant Hayes and Sonya Madrigal

Tickets are $35 can be purchased here.

January 28, 2020

Chicago Inclusion Project staff members Arti Ishak and Abhi Shrestha alongside Kaiser Ahmed, Rom Barkhodar, Tina El Gamal, Martin Zebari, Gloria Imseih Petrelli and Abbas Salem have formed a collective and organized an event to gather actionable solutions for the community:

When: February 16th, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Garage Space: 1650 North Halsted St., Chicago, IL

MENASA MidWest is a newly formed collective of Chicago artists and organizers dedicated to amplifying, representing and advocating for the MENASA artist community.

We will be organizing a community forum at the Steppenwolf Theatre Garage space on Sunday, February 16th to facilitate an open, structured and brave discussion by and for MENASA folks regarding aspects of fair and transformational representation in our theatre, film and television communities in Chicago and the surrounding region. Although this conversation impacts artists of all backgrounds, the organizers have chosen to focus on a MENASA only community forum first.

The forum is open to performing artists, tv/film/theatre makers, and storytellers who identify with and claim heritage from South West Asia, Middle East, South Asia, North Africa and mixed-race descendents of the diaspora. This event has risen from a need for individuals in our emerging community to identify, organize and hold to account not only ourselves, but the institutions and organizations that have over the years both intentionally and unintentionally constructed an unsuccessful, inaccurate and often times damaging veneer of MENASA people.

The evening will be hosted by Ian Martin, Haven Theatre’s Artistic Director and Program Manager with Enrich Chicago, and will be borrowing from “The Circle Way,” a facilitation strategy created by Ann Linnea and Christina Baldwin that reaffirms the essential practice of taking a seat on the rim and turning to one another to uphold racial, ethnic, gender, economic, and environmental justice. Utilizing this structure and a neutral moderator we aim to conduct a safe and constructive atmosphere to explore solutions to questions like: What constitutes transactional vs transformational representation? What actionable steps can companies take to produce MENASA work successfully and respectfully? How do we actively combat the myth that all folks from the MENASA region are monolith? What actions can we take to advocate for our community within our respective fields and for each other’s fields?

It is our goal to facilitate a brave and forward moving series of questions and solutions regarding the intersection of our professional and cultural identities in which we are often required to wrestle with alone when we work in the industry. We operate in the belief that we are stronger together and that singular consensus is not a requirement of intercultural allyship.

Doors open at 6:30 pm with some food and drink available before our discussion begins at 7:00 pm. The organizers include Kaiser Ahmed, Rom Barkhodar, Tina El Gamal, Martin Zebari, Arti Ishak, Gloria Imseih Petrelli, Abbas Salem, and Abhi Shrestha.

CONTACT MENASA MidWest: menasamidwest@gmail.com

MENASA: The Middle East, North Africa and South Asia 

January 1, 2020

The Chicago Inclusion Project has seen a lot of growth and change -- as our community has --  and as we continue to learn from the challenges set in front of us, we thought it fitting to meditate on the last 12 months as artists and as members of this organization... 

I'm grateful for the kinds of artists I am lucky enough to connect with.  I am grateful for opportunities to get my

artist friends to engage with life outside of the art they make; just humans connecting as humans and not talking about our art.  I had a lot of that this year, and I think it's important for our sanity to be intentional about that.

I'm looking forward to directing my first show with Interrobang, writing, more of the above, more TCIP trainings and being surprised by life.                            - Elana Elyce, Chicago Inclusion Project Business Manager

This year I was thankful for:

  • The generosity of our community: their spaces, their time, their energy, their thoughts, their resources and their talents

  • The opportunity to fail

  • The love and space to learn from those failures

  • Rooms where marginalized artists and leaders could find each other, breathe, share and reassure that we are not alone

  • The brave and inspiring teachers and students who inspired us this year during our professional training series

  • The expanded definition of what accessibility in the arts can mean and the passionate, sometimes difficult conversations that surround it

  • The reminder that we all know so little and that that’s what is so exciting about truly listening to one another

                                                                    - Emjoy Gavino, Chicago Inclusion Project Executive Director

This year, I was tremendously heartened and thankful to see more and more theatre artists of all backgrounds embracing the power of "no" as a tool for change-- refusing to indulge and cater to the machinations of privilege (obstinately and wilfully wielded by leaders so convinced of their own allyship that they cannot see the forest for the trees). The glorious sound of "NO" has been ringing out in many forms all over Chicago these past few years, growing in volume and scope, in venues big and small: from the lone artist demanding the protection of union oversight before addressing abuses with leadership of an artistic juggernaut; to the creative team driven to call out repeated institutional racism on social media and in the press; to the artist unwilling to remain complicit in allowing antiquated, destructive depictions of their marginalized community to persist in theatrical portrayals, and calling upon fellow community members to lift up their own voices in celebration of their own stories. 

I was also very very thankful for the new and growing generation of casting directors who have taken up the mantle of inclusion and run with it, such that I am personally able to take a step back from casting in pursuit of my own artistic endeavors, with the full knowledge that there are now many qualified casting directors doing the work we have championed here at The Chicago Inclusion Project from our inception. 

Looking ahead, into the here and now of 2020, I'm excited to see how the growing multitude of voices in our artistic communities will help us evolve into better listeners, better friends, better artists, better humans.

                                                                                        - Stephanie Diaz, Chicago Inclusion Project Grant Writer

There are many things that I am thankful for this year, and many things I’m excited for in 2020 – most of these things fall under these two categories:

Instead of “is this good or bad?” I’ve been reframing that question to “What can I learn or unlearn from this experience?” We often situate our thoughts into various binaries, but this binary of learning/ unlearning has provided me a space for reflective consideration that challenges me to refract thoughts beyond a binary and towards movement and action. Unlearning has been a very healthy tool to engage my past, present, and future in an active way. I am grateful for this new practice, and excited to bring it into a new decade.

Damage v. Desire in narrative frameworks –
This framework around damage v. desire first came into my world through an amazing open letter that Indigenous scholar Eve Tuck penned called “Suspending Damage”. The abstract of the letter states,

         “Eve Tuck calls on communities, researchers, and educators to reconsider the long-term impact of                       “damage-centered” research—research that intends to document peoples’ pain and brokenness to hold   

          those in power accountable for their oppression. This kind of research operates with a flawed theory of     

          change: it is often used to leverage reparations or resources for marginalized communities yet

          simultaneously reinforces and reinscribes a one-dimensional notion of these people as depleted, ruined,

          and hopeless. Tuck urges communities to institute a moratorium on damage-centered research to

          reformulate the ways research is framed and conducted and to reimagine how findings might be used by,

          for, and with communities.”

This letter challenged me to consider the stories we tell on stage. How can we push to have a nuanced conversation around damage and desire in the stories we tell? I understand the importance of pain in representation, as it offers an antidote to the isolation that we can often times feel in our pain. But I am also curious if damage centered narratives provide a one-sided portrait of various communities. As an educator, I am uninterested in the only representation young people of color or young queer people have being tied to pain and brokenness. I am excited to explore this more in 2020 and to consider for myself my participation in the proliferation of damage-centered narratives.

                                                                         - Abhi Shrestha, Chicago Inclusion Project Community Organizer

I am thankful for growing through rough times and finding joy in those times and the family and friends  who made me laugh and got me through one of the hardest parts of my adult life! 

                                     -  Jessica Vann, Chicago Inclusion Project Facilitator

I‘m thankful for the amount of times folks said “no” this year. I’m grateful that actors are feeling empowered to speak up and leave dangerous performance situations for their own well being, and I’m grateful for the times the community had their back.

I’m hopeful we can continue to foster a community with more transparency, prioritize each other’s humanity over the product, and honor the immeasurable power that truth & authenticity in storytelling has. Most importantly, I’m hopeful we realize we each individually have the power to make our industry one where none of the above is actually at odds with the ability to turn a profit or move a career forward. 

                                                                                                  - Arti Ishak, Chicago Inclusion Project Facilitator