My Top 10 Moments of Chicago Theatre Inclusion
20. damn. 17.
We made it.
I don’t know about you, but for me and for a lot of people, this year ran us through the ringer. Like, I’m pretty sure I woke up screaming until around May. As we come to the end of this year, it feels less like a chapter closed and more like a boxer sitting between rounds. The political climate has reached a fever pitch and the next round is coming. Don’t worry. This isn’t a political think piece. I’m just trying to set some context. Nina Simone famously said, “An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” What does that mean to us? How are we reflecting ourselves and the world we live in?
I got asked a really wonderful question by the Chicago Inclusion Project. They asked me to write up a recap of the top 10 moments in Chicago Theater this year. I’m thankful and humbled by this opportunity to shout out to my favorite inclusive moments in my community. It’s also giving me the platform to make my mark on the sexy world of Top 10 listicles.
While I’m not a professional critic, I’m also not some Rando Calrissian. I’m a part of this community. I’m not gonna run down the resume because that’s gross. I been here. I make things, I help make things, and have made things for nearly two decades in this town. Really, I’m also a guy that thinks inclusion is cool and wants to talk about it. So, lets go. This city is INCREDIBLY diverse no matter what is said in casting offices. Our stages should feel like our streets. So without further ado, here are:
My Top 10 Moments of Chicago Theatre Inclusion
10. The First Girl to Play Tiny Tim in Goodman Theater’s A Christmas Carol.
I was and remain so excited about this. I was snapping and clapping this so hard when I first read it. Fourth-grader Paris Strickland is already breaking down barriers as an unstoppable artist. This child underwent SEVERAL surgeries and chemotherapy treatments before the age of 4 which, in and of itself, lets me know The Force is strong with this one. What’s really exciting is that currently, as a vibrant 10-year-old, she is the first young lady of color to play the role of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, a holiday theater tradition for decades.
I mean, damn, right? That’s great. Maybe I’m partial from all the time I spent as a teaching artist, molding minds with zip zap zop, but nothing gives me more hope (ESPECIALLY around the holidays) than watching the future generation of actors setting new standards. The sheer strength, determination, and poise this small child possesses is amazing. It’s honestly the most inspiring thing I’ve heard this year. I don’t know her, but I wanna high-five her for being such an unsinkable force and blessing us, every one.
9. Neverbird Project’s Pinocchio
As a theatergoer, sometimes the great theater experiences find you. I literally knew nothing about this production going in beyond the general outline of the tale of Pinocchio. This show turned out to be one of the most interesting productions I’d seen. It took something I thought I knew and truly reimagined it to be a more nuanced, accessible story. This show was written, directed, and produced by founders Levi Holloway & Katy Boza. What made this play so interesting was the flawless incorporation of American Sign Language into the scenework. Rather than merely being the conscience of the prominent puppet, Cricket also spoke on behalf of Pinocchio, translating his sign language for hearing audience members. The play’s villain, Redd, also demonstrated his power over minions by having about a dozen actors, child through adult, translate the crimson cad’s evil intentions as captured puppets. The whole thing was wonderfully executed and opened this story up to a new audience by not only speaking their language, but by providing them a compelling narrative that was a feast for the eyes on multiple levels. When asked about ASL inclusion in Pinocchio, Levi Holloway told me this:
“Through the use of American Sign Language, spectacle,
and wonderment, we aspire to enrich and broaden the
depths of our community by creating vibrant, diverse,
question driven art for all.”
Neverbird did a really cool thing with this play and I hope they continue to make such accessible, moving art for the next generation of artists.
8. Kokandy’s The WIZ
Kokandy Productions has been doing a decent job of incorporating inclusion into their seasons. Even though they are an entirely cis, white company, they’re casting their shows with an eye toward inclusivity. Their cast of shows continues to include more PoC and The Wiz was their biggest show of the season. I saw this on a Saturday night and I was so lit, the Scarecrow would’ve been nervous at my fire. There were many elements that felt so honest and real. It felt like city streets, yellow brick roads, and Emerald palaces. This is a well-worn story so to make you dive in with both feet, it must come from joy and honesty. This show had an abundance of both. When I asked about The Wiz, director Lili Anne Brown told me:
"There have been productions in Chicago that didn’t
preserve the casting. It was wonderful to do it the
right way, to celebrate US, and to find ways to make
it even more specific to Chicago and the here and now.”
Lili-Anne helmed a spectacular show and Sydney Charles as Dorothy (or Dor-ROTH-y lolz) led us on a journey and brought us home. Ensemble and supporting characters took and gave stage so seamlessly, making wonderful choices with characters we know incredibly well, to make them their own. I could go on and on about the quality but honestly, my favorite part was that it was so damn fun! I was dancing in my seat. Let me tell you, it was a feast of endless black joy onstage that was so engaging. That level of inclusion and excellence had me rejoicing a brand-new day.
7. The Roustabouts’ Put Your House in Order
The Roustabouts is a new company in town but they have already made a very pointed commitment towards inclusion on stage and off. This summer, a teaser trailer dropped on social media which had a large amount of the community smashing that “like” button. Over the dulcet sounds of Earth, Wind and Fire’s toasty jam “Hearts Afire,” we see our two main characters’ meet-cute repartee quickly transform into a fear of whether or not they’ll survive the night. A tight-lipped production and fast-approaching run in Old Town made Put Your House in Order the jump-scare of July. When I spoke with Ike Holter about inclusion in their shows, he INSTANTLY responded with this:
“One of the best parts about putting together
the show was making sure we had the best people
in front of the table and behind it. This resulted in
having a play that had a female majority and was
mostly people of color, mirrored on stage and off,
and, in turn, gave us incredible audiences who were
incredibly diverse and, of course, incredibly fucking thirsty.”
The Roustabouts is a new company creating exciting new work with an active stake in seeing inclusive representation be the norm on the stages in this community. Stay thirsty, my friends.
6. Firebrand Theatre’s LIZZIE: The Musical
Firebrand Theatre came out, axe swinging, with their inaugural show, Lizzie: The Musical. This rock musical about the tale of Lizzie Borden was a whirlwind ride led by four fiercely talented females. From top to bottom the performers leave it all on the stage and throw some of it at the people in the front row. This show was made by women: the entire cast, head design team, music director, director, and pit orchestra were all women.
This is a massive leap forward for inclusion in the theatrical landscape as last April, in New York City, the League of Professional Theatre Women reported only 33 percent of directors over a five-season span were women. That statistic is WOEFULLY low. Artistic Director Harmony France knows these stats and is actively working to change the game. As the world’s first feminist theater company, Firebrand understands the need for inclusion. Lizzie makes this “lizt” because their cast is diverse and the show makes itself accessible with open captioning and ASL interpreters. When asked about how inclusion relates to the work at Firebrand, Harmony had this to say:
“The most important things about producing inclusive
theater is that it isn’t an afterthought and that you’re
not trying to just check the various inclusivity boxes.
It should be part of your mission. It should be part of
season’s planning. It needs to be purposeful.”
It was truly special to talk with my significant other after the show and hear her tell me, “It makes a difference when a show is produced, directed, and musically navigated from a female perspective.” This kind of voice is important going forward in discussions of inclusion, and Firebrand is leading the way in reminding us that the future is female.
5. Teatro Vista’s La Havana Madrid
This show made me feel SO seen as a Latino artist in this community. Teatro Vista has always been about making space for Latinx artists to tell stories traditionally not told by us. This production was a real step forward for the company and the culture. La Havana Madrid was written by and starred Chicago powerhouse performer Sandra Delgado and was directed by ensemble member Cheryl Lynn Bruce. These two women, along with a cast of dynamite Latinx actors, backed by Carpacho y Su Super Combo, reached into history to bring a dance club from the past to the Steppenwolf 1700 space, The Goodman, and The Miracle Center. Each show, like most large-group Latinx events, ended in a dance party where audience and actors alike were salsa-ing all over the place.
Personally, I wasted ZERO time getting on the dance floor because I felt my roots SO HARD in that show. It showed me something I’d never seen before. I caught a glimpse into a refuge for Chicago Latinos. I witnessed Latinx characters affected by the gentrification of their neighborhoods, I saw Latinx musicians bring island rhythms to heat up Midwest winters, and I saw Latinx people fall in love. I saw fully fleshed-out stories about my people, told by my people, a rarity I was pleased to witness. When asked about her show Sandra Delgado told me:
“One of my goals with La Havana Madrid was
to create something that multiple generations
of a family could enjoy together.”
Well, I took my parents to this one. On the car ride home, I was treated to a couple of stories from my mother about her adventures at La Havana Madrid back in the day. Mission accomplished, Sandra.
4. American Theater Company’s Picnic
ATC’s Picnic was beautiful. Truly a magnificent piece of art and a marvel of LGBTQA inclusion. The greatest success of Picnic is demonstrating to the audience that trans and queer stories are human stories. Will Davis and this incredible production team took a classic written to reflect a world and culture in 1953 and focused the narrative to represent queer and non-binary perspectives on aging, body image issues, and love. A seamless subversion of gender norms allows Picnic to have SUCH relevance. ATC successfully dusts off a 64-year-old play to make it one of the most timely pieces of queer theatre this year. When asked about Picnic, Will shared this with me:
“Classics only feel relevant to me when they are vehicles for
historically marginalized artist populations. When the fiction
of these plays feels necessary is when the fiction can be used
to support these often-silenced American stories these artists hold.”
The play also creates a micro and macro view of the world, from the airing of laundry to the conversations had at the edge of town. As each character lays down paper houses, they guard a dim light burning inside. Maybe this light is a sign of hope, maybe it’s a beacon for those who are lost, maybe these homes are lighting the way for us on our journey toward understanding. As the town expands, we the audience are actually watching these queer individuals literally building the world they belong to while questioning their place in it. These characters show us that this community has been here. They represent silent and not-so-silent hearts living and yearning to find purpose.
3. The Inconvenience’s The Fly Honey Show 8
The Fly Honey Show is an oasis in the deep heat of the summer. When the temperature rises, the clothes come off for 4 weekends. The Inconvenience has been putting this show up around Chicago for the past eight summers and it’s only getting bigger and better. The Fly Honey Show is a celebration of the self: it celebrates feminism, sex, & body positivity while giving kickass performances that change every night. This show not only demonstrates inclusion on many levels, it shows us how to be sexy af while doing it.
This was the second year that I took part in The Fly Honey Show as a member of The Hive. Having watched the production side, I can tell you that this is a well-oiled machine that runs on talent, trust, and devotion. I think the most beautiful thing about Fly Honey Show is that while it encourages me to be my sexiest self, it also allows me and others to demonstrate our allyship. Where can I help? Who can I help? How can I help the Hive thrive? Dozens of people give of their time and energy because they all know how important this show is to the community. I reached out to Erin “Coach” Kilmurray who had this to say:
“We are making a show about bodies and sex
and there are all types of people with all types
of relationships to those themes - it would be
impossible to make this kind of work without
recognizing that. There is nothing to gain from
exclusivity within these conversations and
The Fly Honey Show also practices inclusivity
in the form of constant conversation.”
Inclusion is about putting in the time to make room for others and The Fly Honey Show is always making space for it. This show always sells out because this town needs to witness these voices and bodies on stage. So when it gets hot next year, make sure you grab a ticket because this show is emotionally transformative both for the cast and the audience. It happens because it must. All that is good and important in the world takes work and all the rest is bullshit.
2. The Pass Over Conversation
This summer, Steppenwolf gave space for a truly unique, gripping, and some might say controversial story. This play started a conversation in this town that can’t be overlooked when discussing it. I am talking about Antoinette Nwandu’s spectacular show, Pass Over. This show is a remarkable and nuanced look into the experience of the black American. In hindsight, I think it’s interesting that a play that questions the power dynamics of systemic racial oppression, and the dismissal of marginalized voices, was met with systemic racial oppression and the dismissal of the marginalized voices. However you see it, this play will (to me at least) remain a touchpoint in the history of Chicago theatre. Freedoms were questioned. Difficult conversations were had. DMs were ablaze. Speaking of DMs, I reached out to Antoinette Nwandu about her show. I told her I loved it and I was writing this piece about inclusion. She, very nicely, shared with me this:
“I guess inclusivity for me highlights the need for
voices from different/non-traditional spaces.
People who don't condone/support the current
power structure. It's important because those on
the margins of society know first hand what a
society's abuses look like and how best to stop them.”
2017 was a year of questioning our relationship with ourselves as Americans. Whether it was kneeling for an anthem, or asking someone not to subsidize hate speech, our rights were in conflict with what is right. Theatre like this is important because it challenges our sense of ourselves individually and as a community. The conversations surrounding this show ignited dozens of companies to stand together in the quest for inclusion and the safety of those we include. This year we learned it’s empowering to put our stories out there and it is vital that they are told.
Salonathon Turns 6
Oh, gosh. How do I love thee, Salonathon. I cannot count the ways. Salonathon is the Chicago theatre community, the Chicago art community, the Chicago music community, Chicago stand-up and every other performance art community you can think of. I’m putting it at number one because Salonathon is the Chicago community. It’s all of us. Every Monday, for the past 6 years, in the back of a glittered-out Beauty Bar that’s half salon, half bar, four people take turns curating a space that is diverse and inclusive, creating wonderful art made with love.
Every week Salonathon is committing to inclusion on every level. Inclusion is a core value. It welcomes us every week by reminding us that Salonathon is a home for underground, emerging and genre-defying art. I first discovered this haven for artists 4.5 years ago. I got asked to jump in and play some songs last-minute for a slot that had opened up. I didn’t know what I was in for, but I went in with a song and an open heart only to have Salonathon fill it. It was honestly one of the most artistically affirming nights of the year for me. I had never been in a room of such love and devotion to craft and kindred artistic spirits. They facilitate the creation of new art and community by having quarterly “Apprenticeship” shows where people ask their favorite artists to teach them their art.
This year, Salonathon turned 6 and it brought out so many people who prepared their best Photo Booth look, got a martini and a manicure, and came to be a part of the joy. It was like the cool prom afterparty. Sketch, dance, comedy, burlesque, real talk, and music were on the setlist for the evening. PBRs and Malört were slung and the air was filled with the sound of snapping. Those of us who’ve been, carry Salonathon with us. Its sense of community and beauty are indelible. I reached out to the curation team, asking how inclusion has made Salonathon great for 6 years, and got this back from Himabindu Poroori:
“The Monday after the election, Will Von Vogt brought
together a Salonathon called ‘Hope,’ and it was
everything that Salonathon hopes to be in these
times - not just a safe harbor for people of all types,
but a place where we can all witness each other,
dream together, and create the world we want to see.”
In October, it was announced that Monday, February 12th, 2018 will mark the final weekly Salonathon at Beauty Bar. A well-deserved rest to be sure, as all involved have given so much of themselves over the past six years. It is sad news nonetheless to bid farewell to our artistic Shangri-La (Salon-gri La?). If you haven’t been, go. Go now. Next Monday, find yourself there. Get a manicure. Snap. Dance and go to work the next day tired, and possibly covered in some glitter. Salonathon is worth it because Salonathon is home.
Well, that’s my list. If you’ve read the whole thing, thanks for sticking with me. It’s been a great year. Do I recognize the irony in having a top ten list of inclusion, effectively excluding dozens of other productions/moments? Yes, but I’m a product of the TRL generation. So, take this list for what it’s worth. I didn’t see everything, and every step forward taken in the name of inclusion is a step for all of us. New opinions and new voices can only breed a wider base for collaboration. I wanted to show and celebrate work and people in this community doing the work and walking the walk. These artists reflect the times. They’re fighting for their place in this world. They’re making space, shaking their radical butts, and redefining what it means to be an art maker in America in 2017. As an audience member, artist, and inclusion advocate, thank you for all your work. Bring on 2018.
Diego Colón is an actor, singer, musician, award winning composer and teaching artist. Acting credits include: Three Sisters, House on Mango Street, and The Last of the Boys (Steppenwolf Theatre); Balm in Gilead (Griffin Theatre), and the Under Covers Web Series. Most recently, Diego was the ambassador for the CITGO Fueling Good Road trip. Diego Received a BFA from The Chicago College of Performing Arts.