Last night I greatly enjoyed the Chicago Urban League’s Empowerperformance at the Lyric Opera. Empower, a collaborative between the two organizations, provided youth from Southside Chicago opportunities to utilize the performing arts to showcase a positive portrayal of life on the Southside. Accompanied by Lyric voices William Liverman and Angela Brown, Empoweractors and singers displayed musical, dance, and rhetorical artistry of original choreography and script reflective of the sounds and themesof African American urban life.
Scriptwriter Ike Holter, resident playwright for the Victory Gardens Theater, and Composer Damien Sneed, 2014 Sphinx Medal of Excellence recipient, have much of which to be proud. Creatively their team gave a significant message: Allowing the residents of the Southside to unite to give their own stories of the good life in their community will forcibly dispel the negative portrayals propagated by fair-weather reporters from the outside who only are telling fake news about the Southside, thereby showing that Southside lives matter too. Images of Southside nail and hair shops, a neighborhood store, and Harold’s Chicken Shack, added a setting of bright scenes to the encouraging dialog about memorable times of watching grandparents dance in the kitchen and enjoying neighborhood fish fries.
The theme song and rapping were lit – “lit,” itself, adding nice humor to multiple scenes – and there was a poignant shout out to The Black Panthermovie that brought great laughter to the audience. Yet the stage play remained honest about daily experiences, depicting struggles with bullying faced by a high school student who had acquired scholarships to college. Her resolve to stand up against her opponents rather than politely continue to say, “Excuse me,” or allow another to take up her cause was one of the most significant messages of the night.
With similar reality, the young people’s initial struggle to figure out how to make a beneficial difference in their community was important. As the performance moved toward a resolution, hearing the stories of “the old days” helped them to see that our histories might hold a key to uplifting the community in the present and future. In short, like the Lyric and the Chicago Urban League, the young and old collaborated to sing loudly that the Southside is what makes Chicago a great city. I hope the youth who gave this message will have many chances to repeat it all over Chitown.