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My Top 10 Moments of Chicago Theatre 2017

#10 The Last Fight of Macedonio Guerra: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at Red Theater Company

Photo by M. Freer Photography

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz

Directed by Jeremy Aluma

Fight Choreography by Kyle Encinas

If you know me, you know I am a complete sucker for plays about Puerto Ricans or being Puerto Rican: it’s an instant connection for me. After reading about a white actor unapologetically playing Usnavi in In the Heights at Porchlight last year (I wasn’t going to pay money to see that story whitewashed), I had been itching for a play about a fight for Latinx representation. A play that encapsulated that frustration and had some badass, cathartic fighting choreographed excellently, and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity answered that call. The moment that hit me hardest is when Macedonio Guerra aka “Mace” played by Alejandro Tey is literally fighting for his life’s passion: to tell a good story. That certainly resonates with all of us as theatre makers, but especially with those of us who have had to participate in offensive/racist productions just to have our cultures, stories, and work featured, no matter what the compromise means (West Side Story, the aforementioned production of In the Heights, anytime we’ve walked into our audition and performed our best only to be asked “can you make it spicier?”). After all of this bullshit of being reduced to racist stereotypes to do the work that he loves, Macedonio fights the producer EKO, he fights the hero Chad Deity, he fights other heels and refs, and he fights his friend. And this fight feels different than all of the other WWE-style matches we have watched him play. The techniques are similar but the consequences are real. At the end of it everyone is breathing hard and Macedonio finally allows his voice to be heard by those with power. And he wins. EKO invites him to tell his one perfect story, to “do that on television.” Macedonio does, and in the end his perfect story is him, a Puerto Rican dressed as himself (arguably the best fighter in THE), losing significantly to the American capitalist-groomed champion, Chad Deity.

#9 Selecting a Story to Keep at Don’t Look Back/Must Look Back presented by Pivot Arts

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Don’t Look Back/Must Look Back by Tanya Palmer

Conceived by Julieanne Ehre

Directed by Devon de Mayo

Don’t Look Back/Must Look Back was a site-specific, audience-participant production that gave each audience member the experiences of anxiety, confusion, and hope that have been and will be experienced by refugees seeking asylum in America. This piece was devised from interviews with refugees and immigrants and research into the process of coming to the US out of a home in turmoil.

At the very end of the experience, the audience finally regroups into a calm, open, and warmly darkened space. There are three small, low alters. At the center alter, audience members leave a promise, pledge, or secret behind in an art installation of sand. At the side alters there are a vases that contain cards with people’s faces on them and on the back is their personal story of trauma, bravery, and/or refuge. The audience is asked to take a person’s story and promise to recognize it. Promise to keep it safe. This charge of responsibility to others is especially important now, and was an especially moving moment of theatre: to hear a story and to promise to keep it.

#8 Sign Language in Vanya, or That’s Life! by Rasaka Theatre Company

Photo by Scott Dray

Vanya (or That’s Life) by Lavina Jadhwani

Directed by Kaiser Ahmed

Vanya (or That’s Life) is a beautiful adaptation by Lavina Jadhwani of Uncle Vanya. I admit, I haven’t read a lot of Chekov because many of the productions I’ve seen have ignored Chekov’s poetry, but that’s a story for another day. This play was vital, poetic, musical, and found joy even in the pain because that is how life is. What I was especially struck by in this production was that Richard Costes, a deaf actor, was cast as Astrov, and instead of ignoring his disability his culture was integrated into the production. Every once in awhile, American Sign Language was utilized by Astrov to highlight poetry, repetition, and relationship throughout the play and it wasn’t treated as some sort of theatrical gimmick, but just as a part of how this Astrov interacts with the world. It was reminiscent to me of someone speaking Spanglish. Another instance that struck me that amplified the storytelling and recognized the diversity of this casting is that if Costes as Astrov was looking away, his focus needed to be called back by contact or waving. I feel that this highlighted that Astrov doesn’t notice much if it isn’t right in front of him by utilizing the way the actor interacts with the world. I thought that the bilingual nature of this Astrov was well-utilized and showed yet again that you don’t have to cast disabled actors solely for disabled roles to have a rich representation onstage.

#7 “Let’s go:” Waiting for Godot at Tympanic Theatre Company

Photo from Tympanic Theatre Company

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Directed by Aaron Mays

Tympanic Theatre Company aimed to make an all Latinx-cast Waiting for Godot post-threat of a Trump presidency… but we all know by now how the election turned out. As such, instead of a dystopian future where walls were built, this Godot felt like a true possibility, and onstage those bricks are in the process of being laid. A wall to keep others out, and a cage that keeps Gogo (Felipe Carrasco) and Didi (Christopher Acevedo) here.

Godot has been critiqued and examined to death, but in this production and its parallels to the perils of moving forward to a better place (with the possibility of being sent back to a dangerous home) or going back to said home (instead of achieving the better life migrants hope for), the ending conviction of “Let’s go.” while remaining unmoving in the same spot had new gravity and meaning. It’s paralyzing in theme and arresting to the audience.

Unfortunately, this was Tympanic’s final production, but it’s been with me all year.

#6 The #MeToo Reaping: Abusive Leadership Begins to Meet its End.

After the Reader article on the abuses perpetrated by Profiles and its leadership, the Chicago theatre community has been hyper-vigilant to end abusive practices here. This was kindled again by the #MeToo movement on social media, wherein victims would share stories of sexual assault and tagged it #MeToo in solidarity. We believe victims and we fight until change is made… You are not alone.

Here are some that were exposed this year:

  • Brian Posen resigns from Stage 773 amid sexual assault allegations. He issued a non-apology and his sister still remains on the board (Stage 773 is funded in part by the Posen Family Foundation).

  • Michael Halberstam also has sexual assault allegations made against him. After an internal investigation during which he was still directing a play for Writers’ Theatre, he remains as the Artistic Director and a member of the board and has agreed to compliance training.

  • Norman G Kaplan and Darkwood Drama LLC have disappeared from Facebook after word got out that he kissed actors, had actors kiss each other, and referred to a femme actor’s anatomy by a degrading and offensive term all during an audition for King Lear.

I write about this year because I think it is so incredibly important that we continue to evaluate the leadership in our community and the type of environment we all cultivate and nurture. What do we allow, for whom, and why?

We always have work to do. We must remain vigilant in our belief and protection of victims.

#5 Ahab Meets the White Whale in Moby Dick at Lookingglass

Photo by Liz Lauren

Moby Dick

Adapted and Directed by David Catlin

I know that technically this production premiered in 2016, but I didn’t see it until 2017. I now wish I did see it in 2016 so I could have seen it way more than twice because this is the kind of theatre I want to make. It asks the audience to participate in the storytelling with their imaginations and it makes the impossible happen with the ordinary and practical. The most effective moment was just after Ahab dooms his crew and pursues the whale for the final time. Just as Ahab (Nathan Hosner) readies his harpoon shouting to god for strength the entire space blacks out as if electricity has been cut. Then out of the darkness, the fire alarm goes off, its little lights pulsing in time. Actors run from the stage. The audience began to murmur and shift, “was this a real emergency or-?” Then a sudden thump under the seats, a bright light, and then a giant white cloth crashes onto the stage after floated by running actors over the audience’s heads. The gentle strobe of the alarm growing into major flashes and the battle to the death ensues.

Ya’ll, Lookingglass basically stage-whispered “Fire!” in a crowded theatre (in Chicago no less!), thus provoking an actual and true response of fear and anticipation from their audience.

And in that moment, I swear we were the Pequod.

#4 Chicago Theatre Accountability Coalition

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu yielded “interesting” press. By “interesting” I mean a few theatre reviewers wrote some really racist things. One of those being the infamous Hedy Weiss, who has notoriously written racist, sexist, ableist, body-shaming, etc reviews in the past and was still continually invited to plays, putting the wellbeing of actors and creators in harm’s way. She was given free tickets and paid to say these prejudiced things with no reprimand or consequence from her employers so the Chicago theatre community took matters into their own hands.

The Chicago Theatre Accountability Coalition, or ChiTAC, was formed by Ike Holter, Kevin Matthew Reyes, Tony Santiago, Sasha Smith & Sydney Charles “to call attention to the acceptance of racism, bigotry, and hate speech in Chicago theater criticism. Comprised of a diverse group of Chicago artists, and necessitated by repeated acts of ignorance and damaging speech on the part of our city’s prominent critics, ChiTAC strives to unite artists and institutions in a clear and public stand against hate. We will stand with Chicago theaters in their work against hatred, and we will hold them publicly accountable to make sure that work is done.”

Hundreds of members of the community joined the cause and engaged in letter-writing campaigns to theatres and publications, and ChiTAC succeeded in that many companies employed policies and made statements against giving complimentary tickets to Hedy Weiss and other bigoted writers. Some reviewers came to Hedy’s defense and others comfortable with the status quo called it a “witch hunt,” as many with privilege and power are wont to do, but this movement unified. Now papers and organizations are making room for more diversity in their reviewer pool. Now actors can feel empowered knowing that many companies will not invite bigots to their shows and utilize their craft as a platform for hate.

The community showed up to protect its own, and though ChiTAC is currently dormant, I have no doubt that it will rise again when called for. The mission is too important and necessary for cultivating diverse stages and work in Chicago not only for the creators, but for the audience.

#3 The ReBirth of American Theater Company with Artistic Director Will Davis

Men on Boats Photo by Michael Brosilow

After this year, there is no doubt that under the leadership of Artistic Director Will Davis American Theater Company has been reborn. The work that has been done on the ATC stage is blazing the trail of representation of what America is and rekindling the magic of what theatre can be.

In a play that embodies the American adventure, Men on Boats, ATC featured phenomenal talent in a cast that is as diverse as America itself, and that is certainly due in part to the partnership with the casting directors of the Chicago Inclusion Project. This trend continued through the rest of the year with the queer love letter of Picnic and the true American horror story of Welcome to Jesus. Whether you’re coming to see a re-imagined classic or a world premier, when you walk into ATC now, you can’t help but think, “I’m going to see some incredible folx make phenomenal theatre,” and it is true every time.

#2 The Many Hysterical Paroxysms of In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) at TimeLine

Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl

Directed by Mechelle Moe

Intimacy Design by Rachel Flesher

In case you don’t know what a “hysterical paroxysm” is, I’m going to give you a minute to Google it…

...Are we on the same page? Yes! The performances of multiple orgasms in response to pelvic massages, cumulatively are one of my Top 10 Moments of Chicago Theatre. In a play that requires many moments of personal intimacy to be performed in front of an audience such as In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl, it is imperative to employ Intimacy Designers/Choreographers to create blocking and environments for performers to have the freedom to perform vulnerably and vulnerability. TimeLine wisely employed Intimacy Designer Rachel Flesher for the job, and because of her collaboration with the actors there was no sense of unscripted hesitation witnessed by the audience. A well-established, Equity theatre utilizing an Intimacy Designer signals to me a cultural shift: theatres are now aiming to create and maintain safe working environments from “go.” I believe that Not in Our House and the Chicago Theatre Standards deserve thanks for leading this charge and change. Hire. Intimacy. Choreographers. Your production and collaborators can only benefit! Rachel has trained with Intimacy Directors International, a group dedicated to creating standards in intimacy choreography much like the Society of American Fight Directors or Dueling Arts International supply for stage combat. If you would like to learn more, MACE is hosting an Intimacy in Performance workshop with Intimacy Directors International in Chicago this January. You can sign up for the wait list here:

Check out more about Intimacy Directors International here:

#1 Lights up on the Audience: Pass Over at Steppenwolf

Photo by Joel Moorman

Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu

Directed by Danya Taymor

Steppenwolf’s production of Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu was quite the catalyst this year as noted in my #4, and it also generated the most arresting experience in the theatre this year. If you missed seeing it live, I completely pity you.

Spoiler. Fucking. Alert.

At the end of the play, Moses (Jon Miachel Hill) breaks the edge of the stage by jumping into the sand surrounding it, finally leaving his and Kitch’s (Julian Parker) corner and possibly passing over… but then two shots ring out from the audience: Mister (Ryan Hallahan) shoots him. As Moses’s body hits the ground, the house lights begin creeping up as Mister speaks about taking back what you own and just how great it is. The audience is now exposed.

And so is our complicity.

Steppenwolf historically has mainly white audiences and that was true the night I saw the show. I knew because through my tears I could see hundreds of white people watch a black man be gunned down by a white man. I knew because I too was one of them. I found myself arguing with the lights, “no you won’t make me complicit in this. I’m not complicit. I know this is wrong!” But there I was. And it was so masterful. That moment made me count all of the ways in which I was complicit in the hell I had witnessed. In the maintenance of power. How even my being a white Latinx person was still violently privileged. I felt so utterly helpless.

And what a dialogue too. We cannot control the situations we are born into, whichever intersections of privileges or oppressions they might be, but we can control what we do with it ourselves. Right? It made me want to fight harder.

Danya Taymor, I do not know you, but I am ever grateful to what you, Antoinette, the cast, and production team have made. A moment like that is how you change hearts and minds. A show like this is how you change the world.

(Backstage at RADA 2015. Photo by Nathanael Taylor.)

Gaby Labotka (she/her/hers) is a Latinx actor, director, storyteller, choreographer, and more living and working in the city of Chicago. She is an Advanced Actor Combatant with the Society of American Fight Directors and is often a Teaching Assistant for stage combat classes at MACE and The Actors' Gymnasium. She received training in classical performance from RADA, clown and mask-work from Pig Iron, and degrees in Acting and Directing from Illinois State University with distinction of Exceptional Merit in the Arts. Gaby serves as one of the Lead Programming Curators for the Chicago Theatre Marathon, and she believes we can change the world one audience at a time...

Recent credits include A Swell in the Ground (The Gift. Intimacy/Fight Choreographer); ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (Emerald City Theatre. Fight Choreographer/Assistant Director); Wasteland Hero (Reutan Collective. Director); Night in Alachua County (WildClaw Theatre. Violence Designer); Peter and the Starcatcher (Metropolis. U/s Molly and Captain Scott); Romeo and Juliet (Teatro Vista, 2017. Benvolio/Fight Choreographer); Henry V (Babes with Blades. Gloucester/Harfleur/John Bates); and [Trans]formation (The Living Canvas/Nothing Without a Company. Director/Deviser/Choreographer).

Next up, The Good Fight (Babes with Blades. Fight Choreographer); We’re Gonna Be Okay (ATC. U/s Jake); and A Story Told in Seven Fights (The Neo-Futurists. Fight Director).

Check out more: Keep Smiling!

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