‘I Am…Fest’ celebrates the power, artistry of black women in theater

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Actress/playwright Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway is one of the co-founders of the “I AM ... Fest.” | Black Lives, Black Words

Head for the Goodman Theatre for the April 29 finale of the “I AM…Fest” and you’ll encounter something never before seen in Chicago theater: A of cast 100 women of color, all on stage simultaneously.

The massive ensemble will perform a reading of “The Interrogation of Sandra Bland,” Mojisola Adebayo’s adaptation of the police transcript of Bland’s arrest. Bland, a former Naperville resident, was pulled over July 10, 2015, on a traffic violation; July 13, the 28-year-old was found hanged in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas.

“The play is a provocation,” said festival co-founder Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway. “It’s a piece of activism, a show of strength in numbers. All those black women on stage will make us think about our mothers, our daughters, out sisters and ourselves. And all the women subjected to abuse that we never hear about.”

I AM… Festival: A Celebration of International Women of Color in Arts and Leadership When: April 27–29 Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: Fest is free, but RSVP required. Tickets, $10-$50 available for Monday night’s showcase of new 10-minute plays Info: Goodmantheatre.org

As part of the Black Lives, Black Words International Project, the “I AM…Fest” features three days packed with workshops, panels, films and readings. It culminates Monday night with a 10-minute play festival featuring new works by black, female playwrights.

“This whole [festival] shows the power of grass-roots theater,” said Chicago playwright Loy Webb, whose new work “I Am Woman” will be featured Monday night. “You don’t necessarily need a big institution behind you. All it takes is people with the will to create community.”

London’s Hodge-Dallaway and Chicago actor/playwright Reginald Edmund are the driving forces behind that grass-roots ground swell. They co-founded the “I AM…Fest” as means of giving female theater artists of color a chance to be heard. Google the stats: The numbers bear out their assertions that women of color make up a tiny percentage of the theater world’s produced playwrights, plum roles and top leadership spots.

“In terms of opportunity, very few exist,” Hodge-Dallaway said. “I know that when I’m in the room, I’m usually one of three [women of color] at best. Usually, I’m one of one. Events like the festival – and putting 100 black women on stage at once – is important because it allows us to see and celebrate each other.”

Edmund, who is a Resident Playwright at London’s Tamasha Theatre and an artistic associate at Chicago’s Pegasus Theatre, has been working at the intersection of art and activism for years.

“I’m a firm believer that playwrights are preachers and politicians and prophets as well. We have a duty to serve as a moral compass,” Edmund said. “That’s what African griots did. That’s what the ancient Greeks did.”

But getting the chance to be that compass isn’t so easy, Webb’s “The Light” won the 2018 Jeff Award for New Work (non-Equity) and praise during its off-Broadway run earlier this year. Despite the acclaim, Webb said she’s a regular passenger on “the rejection train.” Like Edmund and Hodge-Dallaway, Webb has plenty of anecdotes about theaters claiming they simply can’t find enough talented, black, female artists to make the theater world more equitable.

“Nobody says they can’t find talent to do an August Wilson play,” Webb said. “But when it comes to plays about women of color, all of a sudden it’s ‘sorry, we can’t find enough talent to fill the roles.’ But we are here. If you don’t see us, you aren’t looking,” Webb said.

You don’t have to look hard this weekend to see that talent. The “I AM…Fest.”

“The fact that every single piece of this festival is written, directed, produced and acted by black women? That’s historic and amazing,” Edmund said.

Among the pieces he’s looking forward to: The screening of Shola Lynch’s “Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed,” a documentary about 1972 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm. Hodge-Dallaway is keen to see the Assia Boundaoui’s Chicago-set film “The Feeling of Being Watched,” and the reading of Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind,” directed by Chicago’s Lili-Anne Brown.

“We’re at a very exciting time in Chicago theater,” said Edmund. “But we’re still behind the curve. We can’t rest on the fact that a few people here have gotten through the door. Until we see a true change in terms of artistic leadership at both the major houses and the storefronts, until we see a shift in who is on the boards and diversity on the Jeff Committee, we need to keep pushing forward. We need to lead with the desire for marginalized voices to be heard.”

Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.

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