Taking racism to another stage

Race is often whispered about, or not discussed at all, for fear of offending someone, appearing insensitive or sounding politically incorrect.

A group of Chicago teens will scoff at these subtleties and hesitations this July. These diverse youth from a mix of races and backgrounds will share their most personal experiences with race-and they’ll do it on stage.

Lookingglass Lab, a summer program for Chicago teens, will create the hourlong play during an intensive 13–day workshop and perform July 5–7. The student production complements Lookingglass Theatre’s world premiere adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, which opened in June at Lookingglass Theatre’s new home, Water Tower Water Works.

The 24–member youth ensemble will write their play after sharing their experiences with race and gathering oral histories from the Chicago community. These young people have all been touched by race, in both positive and negative ways.

“I feel as though I experience racism all the time,” says Chanel Coney, who is 16 and African American. Wendy Melgar, 17, grew up in Guatemala and never noticed race until she moved to the United States when she was 7. “I realized I’m different; I’m from Guatemala; I have something to bring into a group,” she says.

Miranda Elliot, 15, had her first encounter with race with her best friend in fifth grade. “We thought people were staring at us because we were insane kids. Then people started saying we shouldn’t be friends because she was black and I was white.”

These young people have big plans for this production and what it could mean for racism on a larger scale.

“We as a generation have an unprecedented opportunity to do away with racism,” says Toby Altman, a 15–year–old white male. He sees racism as much more subtle in today’s world, which he thinks leads people to believe–incorrectly–that racism is gone. “I feel like there’s an underlying level [of racism] in our society,” he says. “Instead of being worn on our sleeves, it’s worn on our underpants.”

“They’re giving us the opportunity to express ourselves, to open up to each other,” says Dominique Brown, 16 and African American.

“It’s really hard to resolve anything,” says Coney, “unless it’s talked about, brought up into the light and looked at.” She adds that their youthful idealism also helps in discussing such a difficult issue. “We’re a little more open–minded, more willing to hear others’ views and experiences, and embrace them and create an understanding around them,” Coney says.

The two ensemble directors are excited to lead this energetic group, which shares their vision and passion for eradicating racism and oppression.

Director David Kersnar, one of Lookingglass’ founders hopes the teens will go deep and examine not only how race affects them, but also how they unconsciously participate in racism. Director Lisa Biggs, an African–American actress, playwright and producer who is also a member of the world premiere production of Race, says, “We’re conspiring, in the very best sense of the word, to transform society.

“When I was listening to their stories about their encounters, it infuriates me. I can see on their faces the way it’s shaped their view of themselves and their community,” Biggs says. “I hope they leave further empowered. I hope I leave further empowered.”

The teen ensemble will present their play at 7 p.m. July 7 at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago. They also will have an open dress rehearsal on at 7 p.m. July 5 and a performance at noon July 6, both at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. For tickets or information, call Lookingglass at (773) 477–9257, ext. 193.

Photo by Josh Hawkins Left to right: Chanel Coney, Dominque Brown, Wendy Melgar and Toby Altman play a warm–up game where they strike poses together while holding each other up.

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