Definition Theatre is poised for an important role in the community. The company is showcasing Amplify, its new play commissioning program, with a series of filmed scenes Feb. 24 and 25, and is also preparing to break ground on its brand-new home in Woodlawn.
“We're committed to valuing diversity of approach, style and perspective and balancing impact with investment,” said artistic director Tyrone Phillips. “We believe it is our duty to continuously develop voices for the American theater that have been previously shut out.”
Founded in 2012 by Phillips and actor Julian Parker, both alums of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where they met as seniors, Definition Theatre made its debut in Chicago that summer with Tarell Alvin McCraney's “The Brothers Size” at the Alley Stage (now PrideArts). “It was a new kind of theater for us then, and we initially staged it as a school project,” recalled Phillips, “but it's all about things we're still striving for today.”
Definition subsequently became peripatetic, sometimes partnering with theaters such as New Colony, Goodman and Writers to produce plays including Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman,” the world premiere of Evan Linder's “Byhalia, Mississippi,” the Chicago premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” James Ijames’s “Moon Man Walk,” Nilaja Sun’s “No Child” and, most recently, the world premiere of Sam Kebede’s “Ethiopian America.”
The multicultural ensemble has grown to more than two-dozen members, among them Academy Award-nominated actress Kiki Layne, rising playwright Ijames, Owais Ahmed, Jared Bellot, Carley Cornelius, Ari Craven, Danielle Davis, Martasia Jones, Slick Jorgensen, Kristy Hall, Kelson Michael McAuliffe, executive director Neel McNeill, Sophiyaa Nayar, Alexandra Oparka, Jacqueline Rosas, Christopher Sheard and Dujon Smith, as well as Parker and Phillips. “It's fundamental for us to have people of color both on and offstage,” Phillips said.
This fall, Definition took up temporary residence at UChicago's Arts + Public Life's Green Line Performing Arts Center on Garfield Blvd. in Washington Park, which is where Amplify was filmed in accordance with COVID-19 safety guidelines. But the pandemic-born project actually got underway earlier in 2020.
“We knew we were going to commission four new plays over the next two years but grappled with whether theater has to be live,” Phillips explained. “Then we decided we could use film to further theater, which would help support the artists and enable us to get audience responses.”
The open call for submissions went out in February, drawing on Definition's wide network of contacts, and the deadline for submissions — of plays, scenes or even synopses — was in August. “We wanted pieces celebrating joy and staying connected, and I was shocked by how many we got: 30,” said Phillips.
Everyone in the ensemble read all the submissions and contributed to selecting the eight semi-finalists. The next step was reaching out to Chicago directors who were available and willing to come to the Green Line center. Then there was casting the scenes, a task that fell mostly to Phillips, with input from the directors and the company. “The scenes have two to six characters,” he said, “and where there was a choice of which scene from the play was best to film, the playwright decided in conjunction with our director of photography/videographer Lowell Thomas.”
The videotaping was done over a period of two weeks with at least a day between each session to allow for cleaning, The scenes range from four-to-six minutes, and each had a single rehearsal the same day it was taped in a different performance space. “We had COVID-19 testing, temperature checks and wore masks except during the actual taping,” said Phillips, who also was responsible for the sound. “The actors were socially distanced, but Thomas was able to make it look like they're closer together.”
The excerpts have been compiled into two Amplify programs, each lasting 45 minutes to an hour and featuring four scenes introduced by the playwrights (prerecorded on Zoom) and accompanied by interviews of the playwrights by Phillips (also prerecorded on Zoom). Feb. 24 brings together “Corazones” by Luna Dragon Mac-Williams, “What a Time to be Alive (You Say That Every Time)” by Paul Michael Thomson, “Lot 110” by Nora Carroll and “Good Years” by Ada Alozie. On February 25, the spotlight is on “The Secretaries” by Omer Abbas Salem, “Last Night” by Rachel Lynett, “are you ready to smash white things?” by Ireon Roach and “The Waiting Room” by Erica Faye Watson.
“We opted for two evenings rather than one because we initially didn't know how long each piece was going to be,” Phillips explained. They're so diverse, we didn't want audiences to have to digest too much at one time.” He added that discussions were currently underway on how to solicit feedback, perhaps using a survey, an audience poll, social media and other methods.
Phillips said that up to four winners will be selected and commissioned for full development, probably by the first week in April, Definition's ninth anniversary. He admitted, though, that he already had a good idea which ones he'd choose.
The goal is to offer a fully staged reading of at least one of the Amplify plays as part of the inaugural season at Definition's new theater and community center at 64th St. and Cottage Grove Ave. Facilitated by a $1.6 million seed grant from the City of Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund and moving forward thanks to additional grants and fund-raising, the building is expected to break ground in 2024, and Phillips projected it will be completed a year after that.
“Originally we were going to rehab a church at 6555 S. Cottage Grove Ave., but our architect, John Morris, said it would be less challenging to build from the ground up on an empty lot,” he said. “The Pershing Hotel once stood on the site and was owned briefly in the 1960s by Lorraine Hansberry's family, so we'd like to present a play by her the first season, too.”
While plans for the building are still in the works, Phillips said the centerpiece will be a black box theater seating up to 200 people with tension grid (state-of-the-art technology for changing lights etc.). Also part of the picture: a rehearsal room/art space, a children's theater, a cafe that may have pop-up concessions and a business incubator with a pop-up shop for fledgling women-owned and BIPOC businesses. “We're very excited to be in Woodlawn and are starting to dream big,” he said. “We're eager to create a space that the community wants and won't be afraid of.”
In the meantime, a filmed version of “America V 2.1: The Sad Demise and Eventual Extinction of the American Negro” by Stacey Rose is on the drawing board for this year.
The Amplify programs, at 7 p.m. on Feb. 24 and 25, are pay-what-you-can and will probably be available on demand later on. For tickets and info, go to definitiontheatre.org.
A free virtual reading of Salem's “The Secretaries” is also scheduled for Feb. 27 as part of Goodman Theatre's Future Labs series. Go to goodmantheatre.org/thesecretaries for more.