Sydney Chatman and Congo Square want to move past trauma porn | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Sydney Chatman and Congo Square want to move past trauma porn

A Joyce Foundation grant paves the way for a community playmaking project focused on Black women and girls.

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"I love Black women and girls. I love them and I think that we need to center a lot of their stories and amplify and uplift them as much as possible," says Sydney Chatman. Thanks to an award from the Joyce Foundation, Chatman—a longtime theatermaker, director, teacher, and mentor in Chicago—will be working with Congo Square Theatre on a new community-based project focused on healing from "intracommunal and state-sanctioned" violence. 

Beginning in July, Chatman and a licensed therapist will meet regularly for several months with an intergenerational group of Black women and girls. Though the aim is to create a new collaborative play out of their stories of surviving violence and abuse, for Chatman, the process is perhaps even more important than the final goal.

"I've been wanting to create this idea for a while where there's a space for women and girls to go, where there's conversation and a place for women and girls to tell their stories," says Chatman, who teaches theater at the University of Chicago Charter School. "All too often, those types of stories, especially for Black women and girls, are not seen onstage in major theater spaces. So I wanted to create a space that can both house those stories and take them and create from them with care."

Originally, Chatman worked with Congo Square executive director Charlique C. Rolle on a proposal for the inaugural Samuel G. Roberson Jr. resident fellowship, named in honor of the company's late artistic director. That ended up going to playwright Kristiana Rae Colón, codirector of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, to work in residence with Congo Square for one year on a new play that will draw upon Colón's "canon of abolitionist theater and stories of rebellion, while also drawing on the current wave of resistance and direct action." (Colón's past work includes the critically lauded Tilikum with Sideshow Theatre.) But Rolle encouraged Chatman to further develop her Roberson proposal for the Joyce Foundation grant as part of Congo Square's ongoing commitment to working with the community. 

Says Rolle, "In the past year with Congo Square, we've gone through a lot of transitions as well. I actually stepped into the role just at the beginning of pandemic. So this year with COVID and with everything we've really done a lot of work and just a lot of re-envisioning of who Congo Square is. We've been an organization for 20 years. We just celebrated our 20th anniversary. Our mission and the heart of who we are hasn't changed. I think what COVID has brought to us, especially with the uprisings of injustice—which are things that aren't new to Congo Square or to the ensemble, to the organization, to our community and the community we seek to serve, and the artists that we seek to serve—none of it is new, but just because it's been so much more heightened COVID has really re-anchored that [commitment] for us."

Working in community is also nothing new for Chatman. In 2008, she founded the Tofu Chitlin' Circuit, a youth ensemble training program on the south side, which incorporated "a la carte" conversations about current issues from a Black perspective, and also, as Chatman notes, encouraged members "to read plays, to go see plays, to be a part of the whole. It was a cyclical thing, part of a cycle. So we would read the play that's onstage, we'd go and see it and we'd build community and conversation." Tofu Chitlin' Circuit helped foster the development of Chatman's play Black Girls (Can) Fly! Since then, she's also been awarded a Michael Maggio directing fellowship with the Goodman Theatre and a 3Arts Make a Wave award, among several other plaudits.

The Joyce Foundation $75,000 grant (the project is under the auspices of Congo Square's August Wilson New Play Initiative) isn't the only recent honor for Chatman. She's also been named one of two recipients of the inaugural $50,000 Golden and Ruth Harris Commissions, launched by Jeremy O. Harris (author of the provocative Slave Play, which received a record-breaking 12 Tony nominations in 2019) and the New York Theatre Workshop, and named in honor of Harris's grandparents. That award will help with the development of Chatman's play The Messiah in Mink: The Rise and Fall of Prophet Jones. (The other recipient is UK-based playwright Winsome Pinnock.)

The other Chicago-based recipient in the recent round of Joyce Foundation grants, which support emerging and mid-career artists of color in the Great Lakes region, is Indigenous futurist Santiago X, who will be collaborating with Chicago Public Art Group on a project called Augment Earth. The interactive digital art experience brings a virtual element to 4000N (formerly the Northwest Portage Walking Museum), Chicago Public Art Group's interpretive "conceptual museum trail" connecting the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers—crucial as a transportation crossroads for thousands of years for Indigenous people. Santiago X is also a jury panelist for Steppenwolf Theatre's new Loft Teen Arts Project, which is now accepting proposal submissions through July 1 from youth artists 14-22 in all media for an original piece of artwork in Steppenwolf's new arts and education center, The Loft.

For Chatman's Congo Square project, she envisions a space "where the different artistic forms come in," which can include everything from writing to dance to yoga. She adds, "Because you may not be comfortable sharing in a group setting. You may want to use your art to channel those different trauma experiences. So I imagine it's a weekly thing. There's some journaling that has to happen, there's some reading that happens as a result. Whomever is committing to this process is committing to six months to almost a year of working weekly within the group, with the community at large, the small community at large, but then individually. Hopefully that from this process, whomever it is, they will feel empowered and this will help them on their journey." Congo Square will be doing outreach with several community organizations to gather the women and girls who will participate in the project.

One thing Chatman is firm about is that the final play will not be purely documentary or just a retelling of stories of surviving violence and trauma. "We are really centering the healing process of this, not the trauma. The trauma is going to come up but that's not the work that I'm trying to present on stage," she says. "I want to make it very clear that a lot of times, in a lot of Black plays, whether they are written by Black writers or white writers that are telling this story, or others—sometimes they focus on the trauma only. And we're getting past that trauma porn or trauma stories that we see. We're in the process of looking to heal. So that's my hope and my goal for this project. I'm hoping through the trust that I build with the women and girls that they're comfortable enough to tell their stories and we can take that and turn it into something beautiful."  v

The Joyce Foundation will be hosting a panel discussion with all the current awardees on Thursday, June 10, 4 PM CDT. More information and registration at joycefdn.org. Applications for the next round of Joyce Foundation awards are also open now. The deadline for letters of inquiry is September 6, 2021.

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