Will You Stand Up?
"Will You Stand Up?" opens the second artistic season for Erasing the Distance (ETD), a not-for-profit organization that explores mental health issues through theater, with a particular emphasis on eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness. Here, the group explores the relationship between mental health and surviving violence through the lens of five powerful monologues.
Although this is the second time that ETD has mounted this show, the particular collection of stories staged at the Center on Halsted are new. There is no set, per se, and the audience is seated on two levels, more or less in a rectangle with an open center.
The actors were seated throughout the audience from the beginning. Nothing more than their voices, subtle shifts in position, and subtle lighting cues signaled the start or finish of a new piece. The setting is almost unbearably intimate and intense. It variously evokes feelings of voyeurism, intrusion and community participation. It's tremendously effective.
The individual stories begin as audio-recorded interviews. These five stories were adapted by Brenda Barrie, Pat Curtis, Brighid O'Shaughnessy and Craig C. Thompson. They have obviously been shaped with care, both as individual pieces, and in their arrangement into a single work directed by Jason Economus.
The production begins with Lawrence (James Earl Jones II), a man engaged in a life-long struggle with alcoholism, who has survived various forms of violence, including rape. The context of Lawrence's story gradually unfolds and Jones's performance, which started out seeming almost problematically low-key, builds and builds to an anguished, unresolved climax.
This story gives way to Penelope's (Maura Kidwell) story, which begins with the dangerous allure of a dramatic whirlwind romance and proceeds through hauntingly gradual steps to intimate partner violence. Kidwell's performance is understated and hits all the right all-too-familiar notes of self-implication, a mixture of guilt and defensiveness about what constitutes "real violence," and the complete erosion of the adult self.
From these stories of adult violence, the focus shifts to an imaginary confrontation between Brian and the teacher who molested and emotionally abused him in early childhood. Given that the first two monologues imply a group therapy environment, the shift was a bit disconcerting at first.
In the post-show discussion, Craig T. Thompson, who plays the role, indicated that Brian had written his own story and that this monologue was his "second attempt." It's ultimately a moving and challenging piece, but a bit of its power gets lost in those initial moments, particularly because the story is more self-consciously dramatized than the others.
Ryan's story also focuses on long-term child abuse and intimate partner violence and the ways in which the experience permeates every aspect of the survivor's life. Adam Poss brings the story to painful life with such unassuming presence and natural delivery that Ryan's struggles with sexual identity and relationships both in and out of his troubled family seemed to be members of the audience, too.
The show closes on a joyous note with KOKUMO's story. This might sound like a surprising way to describe the story of a lifetime of abuse of a transgender woman of color whose skin tone, identity and very being made her an eternal target, but the monologue is charmingly profane and uplifting, thanks in no small part to a knock-out performance by Jasondra Johnson.
At the end of the final monologue, each of the actors asks the audience to raise their hands if they have experienced violence in particular ways. Brighid O'Shaughnessy, ETD's Executive Artistic Director, then asked audience members to stand if they saw themselves as part of the solution to violence in their communities, bringing all of us to our feet.
The post-show TalkBack, moderated by O'Shaughnessy and a practicing therapist, was unsurprisingly emotional. A number of audience members shared realizations about the scope of "real" violence and reframed their own experiences. Others initiated conversations about the possibility of forgiveness, a theme that featured prominently in Brian's story, and whether it was a necessary or even desirable part of every story.
Still others voiced their recognition that they were survivors who were not only potentially in a position to benefit from ETD's alliances, but who might become ETD storytellers in their own right.
"Will You Stand Up" runs through Nov. 20 at the Hoover-Leppen Theatre at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted in Chicago. For tickets, visit erasingthedistance.brownpapertickets.com.