Paramount Theatre's new play project kicks off with dramas by women of color
Had everything gone according to plan, director Lanise Antoine Shelley would be in previews for a revival of "Rabbit Hole" this week at Aurora's Copley Theatre. The multihyphenate actress/writer/director/artist was to direct David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama as part of Paramount Theatre's inaugural Copley series.
Alas, things did not go as planned. The global pandemic closed the door on what was to have been director Shelley's Paramount debut. But it opened a window for playwright Shelley, whose first full-length play "Pretended" was one of the works chosen for The Inception Project, Paramount's new play development program.
Her play and Nancy García Loza's "Bull: a love story" -- about a parolee re-establishing a relationship with his child and family -- were selected for online readings this month as part of the new program.
Established to support Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and other marginalized artists, The Inception Project is funded by a grant from Healing Illinois, an Illinois Department of Human Services initiative that promotes healing from racism-induced harm.
Both "Pretended" and "Bull" address that harm. Shelley's play is partly inspired by her experience as a Haitian adoptee whose mother is Caucasian, and Shelley wrote it in part to encourage adoptees to have "courage in their narrative" and "take hold of their voice."
"As an adoptee, we're told to be quiet and grateful," said the "Chicago Fire" and "Empire" veteran. "I'm not ashamed. I'm learning from it (adoption). It informs who I am."
"Everyone has questions about identity, family, purpose. I'm addressing those questions in my play," she said.
As a Black woman who -- along with her biological sister -- was raised by a single, Caucasian mother in a white community, Shelley says she was "not raised to confront racism."
"They negated the fact that I was different hoping I didn't feel different," she said.
But in the wake of George Floyd's murder, she was "confronted by the fact that I didn't have anyone in my family to help me process it," she said.
García Loza's play, meanwhile, is a love story, but not the Disney kind. "Bull: a love story" is inspired by the young male residents of Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood where, growing up, she spent many weekends.
"I experienced the humanity of a community that had been written off, criminalized and dehumanized," García Loza said. "More than anything, I wanted to show that people who are often written off by society are human beings. They fall in love and go through trials and tribulations like any person."
García Loza had mulled over "Bull," which centers on two people struggling to love themselves and become a family, for years, but hadn't written a word of it. She told Amber Mak, Paramount's new works development director, and artistic associate Paul-Jordan Jansen that she wanted to work on a drama that did not yet exist.
"This is what I have to say right now," explained the self-described "pocha" (a term describing Mexicans who have left Mexico). "It's the play that wants to be. It says 'this and nothing else.'"
Mak and Jansen agreed.
With help from longtime collaborator and director Laura Alcalá Baker, Loza insists "Bull" will be finished by the time rehearsals start. She hopes it will speak to the Latinx community in Aurora, which she says parallels 1990s Lakeview. More than anything, she hopes the play will inspire compassion and start a dialogue.
One could say the same about The Inception Project, part of Paramount's longtime efforts to establish a play development program. But with a pandemic raging and the theater shuttered, proceeding seemed impossible. At least it did until Shannon Cameron, director of the Paramount School of the Arts, came across the Healing Illinois grant.
"Knowing theater is a place for healing, open dialogue and empathy, we thought this was a chance to create a space for BIPOC and marginalized voices," Mak said.
Jansen, a Joseph Jefferson Award-winning actor, describes the Healing Illinois grant as a blessing during dark times.
"Theater is changing," he said. "Writers like Lanise and Nancy are the future of this industry and they have to be supported ... It's Paramount's time to listen and commit to these writers and I'm excited to be part of the process."