SOUTH SHORE — A South Shore-based theater company’s first in-person production debuts this weekend, immersing its audience in the underrepresented stories of the women behind Black radical movements.
“Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation,” written by India Nicole Burton, premieres with a sold-out show Friday. The performances are held at a newly renovated venue dubbed The Davis, 1825 E. 79th St. in South Shore.
Performances are 7:30-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2-4 p.m. Sunday through May 27. Tickets are $20. Click here to buy tickets.
“Panther Women” tells the story of Journey, a woman in her mid-30s who looks to the stories of Black revolutionary elders like Angela Davis, Elaine Brown and Assata Shakur as she discovers herself amid modern life.
The contributions and struggles of the three iconic women — and others in the Black Panther Party and Black liberation movements — are explored through dance, music, poetry, monologues and more.
With fourth-wall-breaking moments and an “immersive” costume and set design by Mari DeOleo, the production transports the audience to a Black Panther Party office circa the late-’60s, director Myesha-Tiara said.
“We want you to walk into the space and feel like, ‘Whoa, is it 1968 or 2023?'” Myesha-Tiara said. “It’s as if you yourself are a Black Panther, because that’s how close you are to the show.”
“The team and the artists did an immense amount of research into the women the story is based on,” said Olivia Lilley, lead producer of “Panther Women” and Prop Thtr’s outgoing artistic director. “Every single element is really reflective of that research.”
Burton’s “Panther Women” comes to Chicago as part of a “rolling world premiere” developed through the National New Play Network, a pipeline of nonprofit theaters that gives a platform to new productions.
The production was previously staged in Cleveland and Indianapolis, where it took on unique forms compared to what Chicago audiences will experience, Lilley said.
“Each city and state gets a different cast, and each performance is completely different from the last one,” Lilley said.
“The first one [in Cleveland] was on a big stage in a theater, and it was very, very dance-heavy. This one, it’s the first production I’ve seen of the play where the women are really among [the audience] and the language is the star.”
The one-month run at the Davis — named after Angela Davis — will include special performances, including a sold-out Mother’s Day brunch, a “kids fun day” and a planned day celebrating local women of the Black Panther Party.
The kids day, which is 2-5 p.m. May 6, honors the Black Panthers’ attention to youth nutrition and literacy. Free food, arts and crafts, games, a yoga session and puppet shows are on the agenda, while kids can learn choreography from the “Panther Women” production.
The crew is also working on inviting women who were Black Panther Party members to a special performance dedicated to them. The date for that program is to be determined.
“One ex-Panther woman came to see our previews last week,” Myesha-Tiara said. “We were so blessed to have her there as someone who actually experienced these things in real life.”
Perceptions Theatre is in the process of establishing the former tax office on 79th Street that will host the “Panther Women” production as its new home, Myesha-Tiara said.
“Right now, we rent spaces from different Black-owned businesses on the South Side,” she said. “But we’re hoping [for the spot] on 79th to … be our space for the moment, until we move into a bigger space that will still be on the South Side of Chicago.”
Perceptions will also host its third annual BIPOC Play Festival this year. It’s planned for late August and will showcase up to eight one-act productions by Chicago playwrights of color.
“We’re going to continue to create art that reflects the neighborhood that we live in and continue to teach theater education to people who look like us to make sure they have an opportunity in the artistic community,” Myesha-Tiara said.
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