About Face Theatre is kicking off its 25th season with “Kickback,” an online compilation of short plays and performance pieces about Black LGBTQ+ experiences commissioned by the theater and inspired by the Rebuild Foundation's collections at the Stony Island Arts Bank.
The company's associate artistic director Mikael Burke, who conceived and directed the two-hour mini fest, explains in his brief intro that the nine videos can be viewed as his “playlist” or in any order. They're listed both ways on the website, along with useful explanatory material about the artists and their intentions.
While Burke points out that the digital performances examine the intersection of queerness and Blackness in the present with an eye to both the past and the future, the Rebuild Foundation's holdings play a significant role and are referenced frequently, sometimes with little explanation. The major collections at the Stony Island Arts Bank — a combination gallery, media archive, library and art center at 68th Street and Stony Island Avenue — are the Johnson Publishing Archive, a collection of more than 15,000 books, periodicals, furnishings and more donated by the Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of “Ebony” and “Jet” magazines; the Edward J. Williams Collection of more than 4,000 objects of “negrobilia” featuring stereotypical images of Black people; the Frankie Knuckles Collection, the personal vinyl collection of the godfather of house music; and the University of Chicago Glass Lantern Slides, more than 60,000 slides of art and architectural history from the Paleolithic to modern eras.
How the artists reacted to these materials varies. In the comments for “Om Mission,” for example, Shanta Nurullah and Zahra Baker, who write and perform as ShaZah, say they were inspired partly by how few positive representations they found of Black lesbians in the Johnson publications. The main “Ebony” article (August 1952), headlined “I'm a Woman Again,” was by Gladys Bentley, a former Harlem Renaissance “cross dressing” blues singer who emphatically denounced her prior life. So in a wide-ranging piece that brings together original music, photos (often without captions), film and audio clips, ShaZah celebrates the “loud and out” blues women of the 1920s and '30s, as well as other Black lesbians, They explore questions of inclusion and acceptance within the Black community hoping “to expand the heart to see and respond to the best in each other.”
Jenn Freeman (Po-Chop) takes a playful approach to “Ebony” in “Litany Pt. IV: Ebony.” A miniature moving photo of the artist travels across the pages of a bound volume of magazines with articles like “The Unity of Blackness” and “How Black is Black?” She's accompanied by DJ Dapper's soundscape and a reading of a fragment of Audre Lorde's poem "A Litany for Survival."
For “Frankie & Labi Saved Us,” a 24-minute Zoom play about survival and the healing power of music, author/performers Robert Cornelius and Paul Oakley Stovall turned not only to “Ebony” and “Jet” but, more importantly, to influential recording artists of the past. Cornelius portrays an artist suffering from PTSD due to the current pandemic and memories of the AIDS crisis who seeks help from therapist Stovall. Both gay Black men, they bond over the patient's passion for Frankie Knuckles, whose songs were the soundtrack of his childhood, and the therapist's love of Labi Siffre, a little known Black gay singer/songwriter from the 1970s.
Poetry, music and movement are the backbone of Dionne Addai's “Pangea,” which takes its name from a Knuckles album. She also uses images of ancient Egyptian art from the U. of C. slide collection to reflect on the history and legacy of colonization, the long struggle for civil rights and the conundrum of Black kings and queens.
“Kickback” is a little short on humor, but one of the cleverest segments is in the middle of “What We See,” a trio of pieces exploring the trials and tribulations of growing up Black and queer in the USA. Inspired by historical children's books and ads featuring depictions of Black children and Blackface, Kirsten Baity creates a conversation between two women, Cade and Rachel, performed mostly in the dark. They ask each other questions about their likes and lives, then each describes what she thinks the other looks like. The big reveal follows — with a twist that highlights the complexities of identity that are at the core of the whole production.
You may be tempted to skip some sections—I admit I was—but don't.