Starting a theater company any time is tough. Starting one right before a pandemic shuts down performing arts venues around the globe is maybe the worst possible timing. But for Perceptions Theatre, going digital with their first full show provided possibilities they hadn’t imagined. And that show—Black Magic by Jerluane “Jay” Jenkins—addresses issues of pain and loss for Black women in ways that feel particularly poignant right now.
Sasha (Valerie Nicole Papillon) is a barista in Chicago whose apartment fills up with her siblings from Louisiana: Hakeem (Jabari Khaliq), a college student hoping to establish in-state residency, and Khadija (Nia Vines), a free spirit taking a “gap year” and seemingly unworried about how she’ll make her way in the world—whether as a hot dog seller or sex worker. Sasha, meantime, is losing herself more and more in the box of artifacts she’s inherited from their recently deceased grandmother, Tituba, a priestess who ran a spiritual shop in New Orleans.
But not everything is as it appears, and as the story unfolds, Khadija and Sasha’s friend, DeeDee (Alyssa Arizpe), urge Sasha to seek help for her unresolved grief, with the latter noting that “People of color have a hard time seeking professional help.”
Perceptions founder and artistic director Myesha-Tiara attended Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. “I actually had this idea for Perceptions Theatre in my sophomore year of undergrad,” she says. “I was in a business of theater class and I just noticed the lack of attention that was being given to the minorities in our theater program. That actually made me start taking directing classes and wanting to form my own theater company at some point. But of course I didn’t do it at 19. I graduated, I acted, I went on tour, I did some films, and then last year, I told myself ‘OK, well, we’re going to make this company this upcoming year.’ And things were fine, until COVID hit.”
Perceptions was in its second day of auditions for a live staging of Black Magic when they realized that the shutdown was coming. But they quickly pivoted to turning the project into a digital play. Myesha-Tiara notes, “We had a friend who had the exact home that we envisioned for the main character, Sasha. It already looked exactly like I wanted it to look. And I said, ‘You know what? Since we’re going to film it anyway, let’s film it here with the budget we have to work with; let’s film it here in an actual home where we have lived-in props and we don’t have to move things in and spend extra money that we don’t have yet and make it work.’”
Jenkins, who was born in Mississippi but mostly raised in Chicago (she graduated from UIC), found that turning her stage play into a screenplay had an upside. “I feel like it enhanced the story, which is kind of what I wanted. I feel like with the way this story is set up, I wanted it to feel very real, so no matter what was happening in the world, we can still sit down and listen to the story of this family going through their tough time. Because at risk of sounding morbid, bad things happen and will continue to happen, but the premise of the play is to show how we deal with them and how we cope,” she says.
Jenkins (who serves as Perceptions’ executive director) and Myesha-Tiara are both committed to serving south side audiences as well as keeping the digital components of the company going even after the shutdown. Says Myesha-Tiara, who moved to Chicago four years ago and lives on the south side, “I said to myself ‘Well, let me make a theater here that reflects the demographic that lives here, and also allow them to be able to learn how to create theater themselves.’ That's why we’re called a full-service company, because we want to help everybody get their career started as well. So we do headshots, we do acting classes, we now have Zoom classes. Our last one was on how to crash Equity auditions.” They also run “The Stoner Book Club,” celebrating work by BIPOC playwrights.
But Myesha-Tiara adds, “Until the bans are lifted on how we can do theater, we’re just having to adapt and market ourselves as a theater company that is doing the work, but doing it all virtual. It’s a very different experience, and I never thought theater would get to this point, but I think it does help because now your work is allowed to be viewed by more than just the people who live in your area.”
Call of the Wailing Women
The Black Lives Black Words (BLBW) Plays for the People series has been providing an ongoing digital play festival for months. They kicked off the series with BLBW founder Reginald Edmund’s Ride Share in July; that piece is now slated for a digital production with Writers Theatre in 2021.
Meantime, Katrina RiChard’s Call for the Wailing Women, like Black Magic, also examines how Black women deal with loss and grief. Inspired by Euripides’s The Suppliants, in which women beg to be allowed to bury the bodies of their sons killed in battle, RiChard’s play takes place in a hospital waiting room. Sandy (Bianca Laverne Jones), whose son is on life support after a police beating left him with irreversible brain damage, argues with Mary (Allyson Brown), a counselor who has personal reasons for wanting Sandy to agree to donating her son’s organs.
RiChard originally envisioned her script as a “true ensemble piece” for six actors, though she always planned for the characters to be women of color. Then, as she points out not, “not just COVID” happened, but also “the unrest that happened as a result of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain and on and on and on. I started to think about how, in the media, we see a certain portrayal of people who have lost their lives. But we don’t really see those personal moments. I wanted to explore, what does it look like when the cameras are not there, when there’s no press conference, and you’re just sitting with the loss of a loved one?”
Edmund and his wife and BLBW cofounder, Simelia Hodge-Dallaway, approached RiChard about adapting her concept for the Zoom series originally as a one-person show. She asked if it could be a two-hander, and they gave her “carte blanche” to develop Call of the Wailing Women in its current form. Rehearsals involved multiple locations: RiChard, who was raised on the south side (she’s now in her second year of an MFA program in dramatic writing at University of Southern California) was working with Valerie Curtis-Newton, a Seattle-based director, actors in southern California and New York, and a Chicago-based stage manager.
RiChard’s play encompasses not just police violence, but also perceptions of trans people in some Black families; Sandy has already lost another child—a trans man whose use of hormones in combination with sickle cell disease caused fatal complications. RiChard describes her upbringing as very traditional and Baptist. “There’s so many things even today in the Black community that we don’t talk about, and when we do talk about it, it’s still very—certain things are taboo, or there’s misunderstanding about it.”
She adds, “And then the whole conversation about organ donation: something that I know for certain there is that there are so many of my family and friends who are like, ‘No. I’m not giving my organs to nobody.’ Because it’s this idea of, ‘If I am an organ donor, they are not going to work hard to save me.’” She adds, “Where that comes from is so layered in with experimentation on Black people,” and cites Henrietta Lacks as an example of a Black person whose body was used after death without the permission of her family.
Like Jenkins, RiChard sees an upside to working online, but she also hopes to return to her original ensemble concept for a stage production when COVID allows. Yet she also thinks that the BLBW Zoom script could be a longer stage play. “I didn’t want to do too long on Zoom, because people’s attention spans aren’t that long in the online space. I just wanted it to move and get through it. But I definitely plan to look at it and get people’s feedback and see where it goes.” v