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Black-Woman-Led Theater Company Puts Spotlight On Playwrights Of Color At Fest This Weekend

Perceptions Theatre's BIPOC Play Festival will bring productions about love, politics, police violence and suppressed trauma to South Shore.

From left to right: Actors Kenny Bell, Felisha McNeal and Lavell McGee discuss who should take over a plot of land in Nic Bell's play "Kingdom." The photo was taken during filming for the virtual portion of this year's BIPOC Play Festival.
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SOUTH SHORE — A Black-woman-led theater company that showcases playwrights of color will host its first in-person festival this weekend on the South Side.

Perceptions Theatre will hold its second annual BIPOC Play Festival Saturday and Sunday at Studio 2226, 2226 E. 71st St. Last year’s festival was held online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Doors open at 2 p.m. both days, and performances start at 2:30 p.m. The performances will be followed by talkbacks with the festival’s actors, directors and producers.

Tickets are available on a pay-what-you-can basis, from $5-$45. To buy tickets, click here.

Featured plays include:

  • “Mess” by Carlo Zenner, which follows a queer Latinx Chicagoan caught in a love triangle as he learns to express his dating needs during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • “The Voice Inside My Head” by Louis Johnson, which profiles a middle-aged Black man murdered by police and explores the widespread outrage that follows his killing.
  • “Was It Me?” by Andrea J. Fulton, an excerpt from a larger play on suppressed childhood trauma that follows a woman nearing her 50th birthday as she unearths painful memories.
  • “Kingdom” by Nic Bell, an absurdist play about succession politics that uses modern language in a historical setting while discussing themes of family, duty, free will and fate.

This weekend’s in-person performances will be followed by a virtual festival July 11-Aug. 14 where recordings of the plays will be streamed on Vimeo. For tickets to the online program, click here.

“A big part of who we are is making sure we reach our hands down and back to help out Black people and other people of color,” said Myesha-Tiara, Perceptions Theater’s founder and a South Shore resident.

“Mess” is Zenner’s first play to be produced for an audience, said the playwright, who was introduced to storytelling and playwriting through the Goodman Theatre’s free PlayBuild Youth Intensive program for teenage Chicagoans.

“During the pandemic, I took some time to write, and [‘Mess’] is one of the first plays that I wrote in an act of self-love and self-care,” Zenner said. “It was an exercise in making sure I was expressing my thoughts and feelings, and this is what came of it.”

The script was intended to be the first episode of a web series, but Zenner adapted it to work on-stage when he found out about the BIPOC Play Fest. He’s working on the series’ next installments, he said.

“I kind of fell in love with the characters that came about in this play, so I’m definitely interested in continuing their journeys,” Zenner said.

Zenner praised Perceptions Theatre for boosting young playwrights of color in ways that aren’t always available and for bringing live theater into a community with few options to watch plays.

“Obviously Chicago is a great city for theater, but a lot of that theater is whitewashed, is heteronormalized,” Zenner said. “A lot of that theater is centered in inaccessible parts of the city; they have inaccessible ticket prices or times to see the plays. Festivals like Perceptions Theatre’s … give opportunities for audiences to come and see plays that maybe are less conventional.”

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From left to right: Videographer Jabari Khaliq, actor Brandon Etheridge and director Rashaad Bond film “The Voice Inside My Head” by Louis Johnson for the virtual BIPOC Play Festival, which runs Monday through Aug. 14.

Johnson, the playwright behind “The Voice Inside My Head,” said Perceptions Theatre provided him a safe space to put on his play despite initial hesitation.

Johnson, whose brother was shot and killed, said he experienced such painful emotions during the first reading of “The Voice Inside My Head” — with its themes of death, police violence and Black male suffering — that he questioned whether to continue.

But the play “needs to be done,” particularly with the recent news that Akron, Ohio, police officers shot Jayland Walker more than 60 times, killing him, Johnson said. “The Voice Inside My Head” can help audience members make more meaningful connections to news stories of police killing people, he said.

“I thought when I wrote the play [shortly after police murdered George Floyd] that by now, there wouldn’t be a need for this play — that the play would’ve run its course,” Johnson said. “But since that time … it’s open season on young Black men. Before they go extinct, I think we need to see it.”

The Perceptions Theatre crew is “the bomb, dude,” said Johnson, whose play “Frenemies” was featured in last year’s virtual festival.

Johnson said the BIPOC Play Festival is a rarity in its willingness to push boundaries, alongside Black theater festivals like Detroit’s Obsidian Theatre Festival, Houston’s Fade to Black Festival and the Fire This Time Festival in New York City.

“They’re really open to new work, they don’t screen your work or censor your work, and they’re real supportive of Black playwrights,” Johnson said.

Perceptions also organizes workshops, “play clubs” and professional help like headshots and resume-building for young talent from underrepresented communities, Executive Director Jerluane Jenkins said.

“I want, in a perfect world, for people to see this festival and know they could do it, too: the writing, the performing, the directing, the set building,” Jenkins said. “I want it to be a symbol of how much art and passion and hard work is on the South Side of Chicago.”

It would be “ideal” for Perceptions to open a permanent studio and event space in South Shore, though funding for such a project hasn’t yet been secured, Myesha-Tiara said.

Myesha-Tiara encouraged people who want more accessible cultural programs in South Shore and other South Side neighborhoods to support events like the BIPOC Play Festival and venues like Studio 2226.

“If you want to see work done by people who look like you, you’ve got to go out and support your local artists,” Myesha-Tiara said. “That’s the only way to help these things continue to grow.”

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