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Artists offer helping hand for emotional, mental healing in advance of World Mental Health Day

Chicago Tribune - 10/5/2022

Saturday was a jaunty fall evening with tons of foot traffic outside the doors of the Lookingglass Theatre on Michigan Avenue. Stepping inside the famous Water Tower Water Works building to watch Congo Square Theatre’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” felt like going from 60 mph to zero given that the interior atmosphere was a cool, quiet, serene one. It was around dinnertime that a handful of theatergoers walked into the space to partake in meditation exercises with a certified yoga instructor prior to the 7 p.m. show.

The group sang songs, did breathing exercises and moved their bodies while exchanging thoughts, feelings and concerns in a sharing circle. The hourlong session took place in the actors’ performing space among the empty chairs of audience members. The acting arena is stark, color relegated to the outskirts of the room where yellow Post-its with positive affirmations aimed at the Black population are tacked along black walls. Light comes from above in the form of what looks like a human-made tornado replete with waxy-looking forms of paper floating amid staggered lighting fixtures. Names that rest on the parchment are people who have perished due to police violence.

Before the start of the show, 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 racialized violence. A response to the loss of Black lives, the work, staged by Congo Square Theatre in spring 2022 in South and West Side locations, is being restaged this fall for Loop audiences.

“What to Send Up When It Goes Down” is a 90-minute series of vignettes that meld music and parody to create a safe space for collective healing. Breaking the fourth wall, ensemble members enact a scene over and over, revealing more information each time. Songs that seem jovial turn revolutionary by the end, there’s call-and-response and an ending where audience members stand shoulder to shoulder with performers to be seen, heard and cry with one another about the injustice of people of color dying. At the start and end of the production, audience members get to share feelings, scream aloud and honor the deceased. On Oct. 1, the audience honored Botham Jean, the 26-year-old Black man fatally shot by a white off-duty Dallas police patrol officer, Amber Guyger, on Sept. 6, 2018, when she said she had entered Jean’s apartment believing it was her own and 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. “It really feels like that from the experiences, all the exercises, all of the coping strategies that’s embedded in this piece. I get to use my experiences of growing up in North Lawndale, those traumatizing experiences that I can present in a positive way on the stage. It’s a release for me. I feel so much lighter and I guarantee you at the end of this run, I’m going to be a totally different person. That’s the goal: to walk out of this place a little bit lighter.”

Ericka Ratcliff, Congo Square’s artistic director, said partnering 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 make sure cost is not a barrier to participation. And with the current staging, Congo Square is hosting a series of discussions 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 at Congo Square,” Ratcliff said. “When we got back out during the pandemic, we were like, ‘It’s got to be more than just going to the theater for the night,’ because you’re risking your lives essentially to come back to the theater. If you’re doing that, we want it to be wrapped around where you’re getting engagement from the theater on all fronts — whether it’s for your mind, body, spirit and your entertainment.”

Ratcliff said the mission of the workshops is to offer individuals 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 run during Mental Illness Awareness Week, per the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the first week of October and World Mental Health Day Oct. 10.

While the theater community addresses mental health in its own way, artist and mental health advocate Brandon Breaux was on site at the 900 North Michigan Shops to show his Protect Your Peace brand in a pop-up shop at Future Galerie’s preview of Chicago’s Largest Digital Art Exhibition event Oct. 1. 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 exhibit, “Big Words.”

“We are all facing different realities, despite what is going on globally. When we talk about what’s happening in communities … it is disappointing and hurtful. This is stuff that I think about,” Breaux said. “These are works that speak to my journey, to important issues in my life. I create T-shirts and they happen to be about mental health because they are issues and things that affect my real world, my reality.”

“What to Send Up When It Goes Down” runs through Oct.16, at Lookingglass Theatre, Wednesday-Saturday at 7 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $35. Celebration of Healing events are slated for Oct. 8, at 5 p.m., and Oct. 9, 4:30 p.m.

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