Azar’s Top Ten Theatre Experiences of 2017:
Meet Juan(ito) Doe – Free Street, Created by Free Street Resident Artist Ricardo Gamboa, in collaboration with Ana Velasquez and an ensemble of “brown and down Chi-towners”
Meet Jaun(ito) Doe was by far the best theatrical experience of 2017 for me. The beating heart of the ensemble and the stories being told of the Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American experience moved me beyond belief. A production created by, for, and with the community. So many moments floored me during the show but the one that gripped me the most was when a character described feeling that life was a test and that they had somehow failed. It instantly brought to light how the personal is always political, because marginalized groups in our society are set up to fail in the system by design. The simplicity and elegance with which this show illuminated so many voices and experiences was magical to witness. Theatricality and storytelling at its very best.
2. Yasmina’s Necklace – Goodman Theatre, 16th Street Theater
My experience seeing Yasmina’s Necklace by Rohina Malik was so unique because of the overwhelming amount of Middle Eastern people in the audience! I rarely see shows at the big houses in town, mainly because of the lack of diversity on stage and in the audience. To see a show where your background and culture are on stage is such a gift. I wish those shows were not so few and far between. Two young girls at the show who knew the playwright and gleefully ran to greet her particularly struck me. They watched the show riveted and I found myself watching them as much as I was watching the show itself. Representation matters so much and that is what this play did for so many, at a time in our country when we desperately need it.
3. East Texas Hot Links – Writers Theatre
I saw East Texas Hot Links on closing day. At the end of the play there is an intense shoot out on stage. An older woman in the front row had a seizure right at the final moments of the play and she was in the front row, so it happened on stage with the actors. Thankfully she was fine after a few minutes and paramedics arrived on the scene quickly. However, later that evening I could not shake the image from my mind. The show had been so real, so flawlessly acted, and so intimate - that this woman was physically overcome by the last explosive moments of the play. I was taken by the power of the theatre and how truly arresting it can be. An experience I will not soon forget.
4. You on the Moors Now – The Hypocrites, Theatre on the Lake
Having missed the show the first time around, I got lucky enough to catch it in the remount at Theatre on the Lake. It is not the type of show I would ever want to direct, lots of people and props and whimsical elements. Anyone who knows my style of directing, knows that the darker the play the better. Yet I was taken with this play and the revolutionary casting choices. I was so refreshed to see a cast full of people of color in roles not traditionally cast that way. It made the story dynamic and relevant to 2017. It had me in tears by the end and I felt like I was reading Pride and Prejudice for first time again. Only this time I could imagine someone like me in the world of Jane Austin, not just another Becky.
5. American Hwangap – A-Squared Theatre in co-production with Halcyon Theatre
I had such fun seeing this play. As a first generation daughter of immigrants, it’s always wonderful to see a play about kids growing up between two cultures. The production used the space in such innovative ways. I called my parents as soon as I left the theatre. I haven’t laughed so much at a play in a long time. It was my first experience with A-Squared and I was inspired by their mission to bring Asian American stories to the stage.
6. Evening at the Talk House – A Red Orchid Theatre
Being a long time Wallace Shawn enthusiast, I was dying to see this play! Having worked with Wally at The New Group in NYC I am very partial to his work and his politics. The script blew me away and I reveled in watching a majority white privileged audience squirm in their seats. I found Sadieh Rafai’s performance particularly riveting. She perfectly grasped the desperation and overwhelming fear that plagued her character. I was on the edge of my seat watching her sink into the terrifying world of Wally’s play. A world that feels only a few inches away from the horrors we currently face in our world today.
7. Blues for an Alabama Sky – Court Theatre
I am probably a bit bias because one of the leads in this play I know quite well. Sean James William Parris was in my graduate class at DePaul. His work always inspired me because it is given without hesitation, with extreme vulnerability, and is always in the moment. During this play I found Sean to be so himself and yet nothing like himself. When speaking to my acting students I always tell them they must find themselves in their characters first in order to then transcend into the given circumstances of the play. Sean transformed for me in this production. He was both familiar and of another world. His fellow actors, particularly Toya Turner, also floored me with their vulnerability and command of the space. I was so invested in the lives of each character because of the superb acting all around.
8. truth and reconciliation – Sideshow Theatre Company
As I big fan of debbie tucker green it was a pleasure to see her work being done in Chicago! The sheer amount of characters on stage for this show is astounding. Particularly impressive was Travis Delgado’s poignant performance; especially considering the amount of time his back was to the audience. I wrote that before finding this awesome image to support my memory of the show. Actors who can tell a story with their whole being activated and captivating, always floor me.
9. Ideation – Jackalope Theatre Company
Although this was not one of my favorite shows of the year, I must say it landed on the list because my partner (John Shaw), who I drag to all these shows as a non-theatre person, absolutely LOVED it. I asked him to tell me what about it struck him so much and he said, “I liked how it attempts to shine a light on the connection between big business and human suffering. We can see in that culture how easy it could be to consider very large numbers of human lives as just entries in a cost/benefit spreadsheet. It's like a corporate horror escape room.”
10. dirty butterfly – The Blind Owl in co-production with Halcyon Theatre, Theatre on the Lake
I was hesitant to put a show I worked on, on my list. However I must give credit to my incredible cast and crew for their remount of the U.S. premiere of dirty butterfly by debbie tucker green. It is a highly abstract piece with many emotional and physical demands. I was terrified at the idea of three weeks rehearsal with two new cast members of a three-person cast. The actors came to first rehearsal off-book and the amount of work that got done in our first week of rehearsal was incredible. The chemistry between the actors was instant and I saw all three of them enter into the process without any restraint. At the end of the rehearsal on our fourth day, one of the actors had an emotional breakthrough. The actor allowed themselves to cry and be comforted by their fellow cast mates. My already deep admiration for actors swelled in that moment. As I witnessed the extreme courage it takes to do this work, I was reminded why I chose a life in the theatre. I told my father once, “If I’m not doing this, I’m not doing anything.”
Azar Kazemi is the founding artistic director at The Blind Owl, a socially-charged theatre where the political and personal collide. She most recently directed the U.S. premiere of debbie tucker green’s dirty butterfly in co-production with Halcyon Theatre. Some of Azar’s Chicago directing credits include: the mid-west premiere of Jack’s Precious Moment by Samuel D. Hunter, Crave by Sarah Kane, and The Coming World by Christopher Shinn. She is a graduate of DePaul University’s MFA Directing program and currently teaches at DePaul as an adjunct professor of theatre arts. Her classes include: Race and Ethnicity on the American Stage, Gender and Sexuality on Stage, and World of the Theatre. Azar has worked at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Victory Gardens, Silk Road Rising, American Theatre Company, Chicago Dramatists, and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. In New York City Azar worked at The New Group where she assistant directed three Off-Broadway productions, two under the direction of her mentor Ethan Hawke.