Maybe it occurred with the election of Barack Obama. Or the murder of Trayvon Martin, or the implementation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or the election of you-know-who. But at some point in recent American memory, the often talked-about, ever-elusive "national conversation about race" stopped being a think-piece phrase and turned into an actual daily reality. As a nation, engaging in the conversation is unquestionably (a) critical to combatting deeply rooted systemic social injustice and (b) really, really unpleasant.
For its part, the social issues-focused Collaboraction theater group aims to make that important dialogue a little less painful by taking it offscreen, offline, and into the city's public spaces, face-to-face. This fall, as part of the Chicago Park District's Night Out in the Parks program, more than 200 artists will present 24 short "prayers for peace" with three unique lineups in Englewood (October 5-7), Hermosa (October 19-21), and Austin (November 2-4), each featuring eight original works by local playwrights, storytellers, musicians, dancers, and poets. During an all-day preview on a recent Saturday at the Goodman's Owen Theatre, Collaboraction artistic director and festival curator Anthony Moseley encouraged viewers to focus on "the epidemic of inequity" in our own neighborhoods, where "half this city doesn't know it's the oppressor."
Theatergoers may recall Collaboraction's Sketchbook festival, an annual show of short works that ran for 15 years, ending in early 2016. In addition to enlisting former Sketchbook contributors like Sandra Delgado and GQ of the Q Brothers, Peacebook draws from youth organizations and direct-source nonfiction storytellers, giving all the theme of conflict resolution to interpret.
Across the board, it's enlightening stuff. And often, it's deeply personal and emotionally challenging. In Vueltas, adapted by Delgado and directed by Miranda Gonzalez, Sammy Rangel lays bare the realities of what led him to a life of violence, the gauntlet he endured to escape, and how he's shown the way out for others. Opposite GQ and Jillian Burfete, Tyrone Taylor offers a "ritual of healing" based on real-life events in 17 to (New) Life. And in the monologue How Long Do I Have to Continue to Prove Myself?, Ada Cheng laments the proverbial asterisk that follows her name and American identity from visa to green card to naturalization certificate.
With so many bitter pills to be swallowed about segregation, gun violence, racial discord, and attitudes toward immigration, a little joy goes a long way, and there's joy to be found here in spades. During preshow entertainment for the program to be staged in Austin's La Follette Park, M.A.D.D. Rhythms founder Bril Barrett—a charismatic, crowd-working entertainer—invited audiences to play a call-and-response clapping game to his exhilarating tap performance, a precursor to EmpoWOMENt, a piece for eight female dancers choreographed by Barrett and Star Dixon. During Yuri Basho Lane's beatbox musical short Make Peace, a toddler adjacent to me stomped to the rhythm, her light-up sneaker soles pulsating flashes to the beat. A step routine directed by Sir Taylor and performed by the Example Setters youth ensemble plays out as part drill, part revival, one that reminds listeners to hold themselves and others to account. In the most literal interpretation of peace, Laura Biagi, accompanied by drummer Tolga Yenilmez, guides audiences through a breathing and meditation exercise to an enchanting soundscape based on the alphabets of four languages.
There's awkwardness and potential conflict inherent in facing Goliath-scale sociopolitical issues, and Peacebook addresses that head-on. Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman's funny, cringe-inducing Some Thoughts on Race and Racism in Chicago From Some People Who Aren't Sure What to Do and Who Sat Down and Talked About It features actor-read transcripts of interviews with white Chicagoans talking about their lack of comfort discussing "tricky" issues. Thread, devised by actor David Dastmalchian and Collaboraction Peacemaker teen ensemble member Aisha June, re-creates an online exchange that began with mutual disdain for conservative pundit Tomi Lahren, then grew into an uneasy, well-intended, but contentious exchange regarding Black Lives Matter.
But if 200 years of systemic racism and oppression are ever to be overcome, artists and audiences alike are going to have to endure a little awkwardness. And if a city like Chicago can be blessed with so many storytellers brave enough to put their names and narratives on the line, the least the other 2.7 million of us can do is be engaged enough to hear them. v