On March 22, Lincoln Park-based Steppenwolf Theater put on two shows at Austin Town Hall fieldhouse, 5610 W. Lake St.
“We Are Proud to Present…” is already an emotionally charged play that tackles race, colonial oppression and the whitewashing of history. When performed in communities like Austin, where those issues have most immediacy, the play resonates even more intensely.
The two shows performed in Austin — one in the morning for youth from local schools and one in the evening for the general public — were part of a seven-stop tour across the city and the only stop on the West Side.
Before the evening performance, Steppenwolf instructors held a workshop to encourage the youth watching the play to think about its themes.
“We Are Proud to Present…” is a 2012 play about a group of six nameless actors, three black and three white, trying to put on a play about the genocide of the Herero people in what is now Nambia. Slowly but surely, tensions boil as performers try to figure out how to depict events for which first-hand written accounts come from the point of view of German colonists.
While the white actors originally want to stick to those written recollections, the black actors push them to focus on the Herero perspectives and acknowledge the parts of history the recollections brush over. As tempers flare and tensions grow, the play grapples with the themes of who gets to write history and what it means to depict cultures none of the actors belong to.
Megan Shuchman, Steppenwolf’s director of education, explained that her employer works with a number of community organizations, including Austin’s BUILD Inc., to give teens from all over Chicago opportunities to take theater workshops. For the past three years, they have also been working with those groups, as well as the Chicago Public Library system and Chicago Park District, to bring free and affordable performances to other parts of Chicago.
For “We are Proud of Present,” Shuchman said that they knew they couldn’t possibly visit every corner of the city, but they wanted to hit at least one West Side location. And since they have been working with BUILD for the past few years, Austin was a natural choice.
“It’s important that we represent as much of the city as possible,” Shuchman said.
On the morning of March 23, Steppenwolf held a private performance for students from local schools. Shuchman said that about 150 students from Austin High School, Michelle Clark High School, Aspiria High School and Bridgescape Alternative High School.
In the afternoon, Steppenwolf instructors invited youth who already take part in park district programs throughout Austin, as well as kids and teens who just happened to be at Austin Town Hall at the time, to take part in an hour-long workshop held before the evening performance.
While a total of 15 kids and teens and two adults took part in the workshop, around 50-60 people attended the performance itself.
The workshop dealt with one of the play’s major themes – how history gets interpreted – by having participants describe and draw an object that’s important to them and explain why that object is important to them.
A student named Naomi, for example, described a necklace that was important to her because it made her feel connected to her sister, who no longer lives with her.
The workshop also had two secondary purposes: To encourage youth to express themselves and to give those who’ve never seen a play before the basics of theater etiquette. The instructors said from the get-go that the play would feature upsetting, racist imagery. If any of them wanted to leave the theater because it got too much, they were free to do so and Steppenwolf had a counselor on standby for those who needed one.
“[It] is just kind of to prepare you, so you know it’s coming,” said instructor Freddie Ramos. “As an actor, I’m 33 years old, and I had to tell myself to keep breathing.”