Eviction and art. As a grade-schooler in Bronzeville, Nambi E. Kelley learned that surviving the former meant embracing the latter. Now 45, Kelley is a widely acclaimed playwright, actor, and screenwriter. Still, evictions have a way of leaving a mark on people. Kelley used her memories as a launching point for the ten-minute, south-side-set Ode to Mama Obama by Someone Who Was a Little Black Girl in the 'Hood, debuting alongside 20 other short works of dance, drama, poetry, comedy, and spoken word in Collaboraction's 2019 Peacebook Festival, opening Thursday at Englewood's Kennedy-King College.
Kelley's playlet takes the (almost) mythic origin story of Michelle Obama and her south-side working-class roots and filters it through the prism of a Black woman whose perspective on Obama's humble beginnings isn't often heard out loud. As Kelley puts it: "My main character is also from the south side of Chicago. She's experiencing homelessness, and she's like, 'How come Michelle Obama gets out of here with this fine-ass chocolate president husband and I'm left in the bottom of the elevator shaft?'"
To be clear, Kelley is nowhere near the bottom of an elevator shaft, metaphorically or literally. "I can't really explain how that eviction helped me create, but I can say that there was—and is—no other outlet to express what I was feeling except through art," she says.
That succinctly sums up Peacebook's ambitions: to provide an outlet for anyone who wants to get involved with theater, whether that means snapping up (always free) tickets to a show or devising a scene or interviewing Chicagoans about issues of the day. The company has also committed to producing this year's season entirely on the south side, Kennedy-King serving as the home-court locale of future productions.
Collaboraction managing director Marcus Robinson and founder Anthony Moseley are undaunted by the challenges inherent in putting on three different evenings of seven-act productions (if you want to binge-watch all 21, check the opening-weekend schedule) with a budget that would barely cover the costumes at some of Chicago's bigger institutions. Robinson, an Englewood hypnotherapist and community organizer who recently relocated from Michigan, is unshakable in his belief in theater's ability to heal, uplift, and foment change.
"The blues came from oppression, and changed the musical landscape of the world. Gospel music changed the way we worship and pray. Both came from the south and west sides of Chicago, out from under the crushing weight of poverty and oppression, " Robinson says. "What I've learned is that art is healing for both the artists and the audience. We play the blues for each other so we can commune over our hardships. We can see each other. Really see each other."
Robinson will be holding what he terms "crucial conversations" after each Peacebook performance, discussions he promises will go deeper than your average talkback. "We want to get beyond talking about what happened onstage, and into what happened to you when you experienced it." v