Saturday was a busy fall evening with plenty of foot traffic outside the doors of the Locking Glass Theater on Michigan Avenue. Entering the famous Water Tower Water Works building to watch the Kong Square Theater “What to Send Up when It Goes Down” felt like you were going from 60mph to zero as the inside was cool, calm and serene. Around the time of dinner, a handful of theater-goers stepped into the space to engage in meditation exercises with a certified yoga instructor before the 7 p.m. show.
The group sang songs, performed breathing exercises, and moved their bodies while exchanging thoughts, feelings, and concerns in a sharing circle. The hour-long session was held in the actors’ performance space between the empty chairs of audience members. The arena is starkly colored, veering to the edges of the room as Yellow Post-its with positive affirmations targeting black residents line the black walls. The light comes from above in the shape of a man-made tornado filled with papery wax figures floating amidst intertwined lighting fixtures. The names that remain on the manuscript are the names of people who died due to police violence.
Before the show began, an actor explained that the play is about black people, for black people and written by a black person — New York playwright Alicia Harris — to help black communities recover from ongoing American racial violence. In response to the loss of black lives, the work, staged by the Congo Square Theater in spring 2022 at South and West Side locations, is being re-run this fall for Loop audiences.
“What to Send Up When It Goes Down” is a 90-minute series of vignettes that combine music and parody to create a safe space for collective healing. Upon breaking the fourth wall, the group members make a scene over and over, revealing more information each time. Songs that sound hilarious turn revolutionary at the end, there is a call, a response and an end where audience members stand shoulder to shoulder with performers to be seen, heard and weep with one another about the injustice of people of color. At the beginning and end of the production, the audience shares their feelings, shouting loudly and honoring the deceased. On October 1, the public honored Bothham Jean, the 26-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a white off-duty police officer in Dallas, Amber Guyger, on September 6, 2018, when she said she entered Jean’s apartment. Thinking it was hers and Jean was a thief.
“It’s not a play, it’s a ritual,” said performer Willie “Prince Rock” Round, a local playwright whose work includes Trial in the Delta: The Emmett Till Murder, a staged adaptation of the 1955 trial version. “It really feels from the experiences, all the exercises, all the coping strategies that are included in this piece. I can draw from my experiences growing up in North Londale, those traumatic experiences that I can present in a positive way on stage. It’s my release. I feel lighter and I guarantee you in At the end of this race, I’m going to be a completely different person. That’s the goal: get out of this place a little bit.”
Erica Ratcliffe, Kongo Square’s artistic director, said the partnership with Locking Glass was an opportunity for Harris’ work to be more accessible to the entire city due to its central location. Half of the tickets for each show are donated to local community groups to ensure that cost is not a barrier to participation. With the current offering, Congo Square is hosting a series of discussions and workshops in a variety of styles such as yoga, meditation and restorative healing practices for members of the public on Saturdays at no cost.
“We’ve really invested in Congo Square,” Ratcliffe said. “When we came back during the pandemic, we were like, ‘It should be more than just going to the theater at night,’ because you’re basically risking your life to get back on the stage. If you’re doing that, we want to get around where you’re in from the stage all over the place. Fronts – whether it’s for your mind, body, soul, and entertainment.”
Ratcliffe said the workshops’ mission is to provide individuals with practical tools for their healing journey while removing the stigma of the effects of trauma on mental, physical and emotional health. The play and “Celebrating Healing” workshops take place during Mental Illness Awareness Week, at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), first week of October and World Mental Health Day October 10.
While the theatrical community deals with mental health in its own way, artist and mental health advocate Brandon Breaux was on site at 900 North Michigan stores to showcase his Protect Your Peace brand in a pop-up store in future exhibitionA preview of Chicago’s largest digital art fair on October 1st. Beyond fashion, graphic design, contemplation and soon NFTs, Breaux was selling hoods and baseball caps with the phrase “Protect Your Peace” on them, as well as jewelry from his solo show this spring,”great words. “
“We all face different realities, despite what is happening globally. When we talk about what is happening in societies…it is disappointing and painful. These are things that I think about,” Breaux said. “These are works that speak of my journey, about important issues in my life . I make T-shirts and they happen to be related to mental health because they are issues and things that affect my real world, my real life.”
The “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” show runs through October 16, at the Lookglass Theatre, Wednesday through Saturday at 7 p.m., with trainees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets $35. Healing events are scheduled for October 8 at 5 p.m., and October 9, 4:30 p.m.