Austin resident Di Reed portrays the ghost of Malcolm X in "Six Stories Up in Haunted Chicago," which tells the story of middle school students who encounter famous deceased Chicagoans on a field trip.
The production, which includes both disabled and non-disabled actors, finished its run on Oct. 22 at the Filament Theatre, 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave. in the Old Irving Park neighborhood.
Reed, who prefers the pronoun they, has macular degeneration, a condition marked by vision loss can lead to complete blindness.
Reed is an ESL teacher who has taught at local community colleges and in Vietnam for eight years. In their spare Reed volunteers at the Garfield Park Conservatory but had not participated in theater until this year.
For "Six Stories Up," Reed was paired with student actor Miles Wilson, and the two chose to focus on Malcolm X because they felt he was often overlooked compared to Martin Luther King Jr.
Other historical figures with Chicago ties – gangster Al Capone, comedian John Belushi and playwright Lorraine Hansberry – round out the remaining five stories as the students learn valuable lessons about education, discrimination and the arts.
Each story was co-written by the six students under the guidance of their mentor and incorporates personal experiences that often shed light on the lives of those with disabilities.
"A lot of times we look at someone who can't see and we assume something, but when you get acquainted with them you see that they're real," Reed said.
Tellin' Tales Theatre, the group behind the Six Stories Up series, celebrated 21 years in May. Its founder said the performances are aimed at "shattering the barriers between the disabled and non-disabled worlds through the transformative power of personal story."
Tekki Lomnicki, who also directs and stars in this month's show, said the inspiration for the company's flagship series came from her experiences teaching theater to middle schoolers in the 1990s.
Now she gets emails throughout the year referring students, and she lets anyone who's interested participate.
"I feel that it's not about talent; anyone can be taught to act. It's about wanting to learn," she said.
Reed hadn't considered acting until participating in a Tellin' Tales workshop held at the church, St. Martin's Episcopal Church, they attend in Austin.
"I guess they were impressed with what they saw, and they asked me to continue," Reed said.
After that initial exposure, Reed went on to perform a solo piece about their experiences in Vietnam as part of the group's show "Divercity" that ran in June.
"This has been like a dream. It's been a dream to get into acting," Reed said.
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