October puts mental health on the world stage. Here’s what Chicago’s arts community is up to.
Saturday was a playful fall evening with tons of pedestrians outside the doors of the Lookingglass Theater on Michigan Avenue. Entering the famous Water Tower Water Works building to watch Congo Square Theater’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” was like going from 60 mph to zero as the atmosphere inside was cool, calm and serene. It was around dinnertime that a handful of audience members entered the space to participate in meditation exercises with a certified yoga instructor ahead of the 7 p.m. show.
The group sang songs, did breathing exercises and moved their bodies as they exchanged thoughts, feelings and concerns in a sharing circle. The hour-long session took place in the actors’ performance space among the empty chairs of the spectators. The acting arena is austere, color relegated to the periphery of the room where yellow post-its with positive affirmations aimed at the black population are tacked along the black walls. The light comes from above in the form of what looks like a man-made tornado filled with waxy-looking paper shapes floating amid staggered light fixtures. The names that rest on the parchment are people who perished as a result of police violence.
Before the show begins, a performer explains that the play is about black people, for black people and written by a black person – New York playwright Aleshea Harris – to help black communities heal from ongoing American racial violence. In response to the loss of black lives, the work, staged by Congo Square Theater in spring 2022 in southern and western venues, is being re-enacted this fall for Loop audiences.
“What to Send Up When It Goes Down” is a series of 90-minute vignettes that blend music and parody to create a safe space for collective healing. Breaking the fourth wall, the ensemble members reenact a scene over and over again, revealing more information each time. Songs that sound jovial become groundbreaking at the end, there’s a call and response and an ending where audience members stand side by side with performers to be seen, heard and cry with each other on the injustice of people of color dying. At the start and end of the production, viewers can share their feelings, shout out loud, and honor the deceased. On October 1, the public paid tribute to Botham Jean, the 26-year-old black man shot dead by a white Dallas police patrol, Amber Guyger, on September 6, 2018, when she said she walked into the John’s apartment. believing it was his and that Jean was a burglar.
“It’s not a play, it’s a ritual,” said performer Willie “Prince Roc” Round, a local playwright whose work includes “Trial in the Delta: The Murder of Emmett Till.” , a stage adaptation of the 1955 trial transcript. I can use my experiences growing up in North Lawndale, those traumatic experiences that I can present in a positive way on stage. It’s a release for me. I feel so much lighter and I guarantee you that at the end of this run I will be a totally different person. That’s the goal: to get out of this place a little lighter.
Ericka Ratcliff, artistic director of Congo Square, said the partnership with Lookingglass was an opportunity for Harris’ work to be accessible to the whole city due to its central location. Half of all tickets for each performance are donated to local community groups to ensure cost is not a barrier to attendance. And with the current staging, Congo Square is hosting a series of talks and workshops in a variety of modalities like yoga, meditation, and restorative healing practices for audience members on Saturdays at no cost.
“We’re really invested in Congo Square,” Ratcliff said. “When we came back during the pandemic, we were like, ‘This has got to be more than just going to the theater for the night,’ because you’re basically risking your life to come back to the theater. If you do this, we want this to be where you get theater engagement on all fronts – whether it’s for your mind, your body, your spirit, and your entertainment.
Ratcliff said the mission of the workshops is to provide individuals with practical tools for their healing journey while destigmatizing the impacts of trauma on mental, physical and emotional well-being. The play and its “celebration of healing” workshops take place during Mental Illness Awareness Week, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the first week of October and World Mental Health Day. October 10.
As the theater community approaches mental health in its own way, artist and mental health advocate Brandon Breaux was on hand at 900 North Michigan Shops to show off his Protect Your Peace brand in a pop-up shop at the premiere. from the Future Gallery of Chicago’s largest digital art. Exhibition event on October 1st. Crossing the lines of fashion, graphic design, meditation and soon NFTs, Breaux was selling hoodies and baseball caps with the words “Protect Your Peace” on them, as well as jewelry from his spring solo show, “Big words.”
“We all face different realities, despite what is happening globally. When we talk about what is happening in the communities… it’s disappointing and hurtful. It’s something I think about,” Breaux said. “These are works that speak of my journey, of important issues in my life. I design t-shirts and they happen to be about mental health because those are issues and things that affect my real world, my reality.
“What to Send Up When It Goes Down” runs through October 16, at the Lookingglass Theater, Wednesday through Saturday at 7 p.m., with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $35. Healing Celebration events are scheduled for October 8 at 5 p.m. and October 9 at 4:30 p.m.