Workshop helps participants share their personal stories about race

Overture briefly evacuated due to ‘unsubstantiated threat’

Teaching artist Sheri Williams Pannell stands in front of the group of 15, without speaking, and moves her hand slowly and with intention. This exercise, called the Power of the Hand, is designed specifically to tackle questions of race and identity.

“I like how it all happened in silence, but somehow we all got it. So many things, good and bad happen just that way,” said Michelle McKiernan, one of the workshop participants.

Theater can tackle challenging questions on stage. But in the Real Stories About Race Workshop, the techniques behind good performances allow participants to engage in a personal dialogue about race.

Theatre LILA and the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble put on the first of these two community workshops on Nov. 13, which aim to create a unique community building experience and allow multigenerational and multicultural participants to share their unique stories.

Teaching artists Sheri Williams Pannell, of the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble, and Jessica Lanius and Mike Lawler, of Theater LILA, lead a series of improv and theater exercises to spark dialogues about race as well as build communication and leadership skills.

The collaboration between the two theater groups began with their work on the play “The Mojo and the Sayso,” which debuts in February. The play brings up issues of race, as a black family copes with the after effects of their 10-year-old son being killed by a white police officer. Dealing with such an important topic sparked the question for Lanius and her fellow co-directors: How can we get the community brave enough to talk about complex issues surrounding race?

“I ask myself, ‘What can I do?’ Like ‘What do I do?’ and ‘How can I help in this area?’ I am a theater person–this is kind of my way of doing community engagement work that hopefully helps people connect and gain some experience,” Lanius said.

Theater LILA already had a storytelling workshop that can be adapted on any theme, but they had never focused on race before.

Lanius said the workshops were developed to “open the door to conversations that we’re not having necessarily, that (we are) too afraid to have. So I feel like this is a beginning to chip away at this problem of not talking about it.”

Organizers thought it was important to establish a connection between participants quickly, as they would be talking about deeper issues throughout the workshop.

To get participants comfortable, the workshop started with what Lanius called “play”–time to let loose and let any walls down to create a safe space amongst participants.

“We do a whole bunch of on your feet, highly physical movement-based theater exercises because I think if you get yourself breathing hard and playing and not thinking in your head that you’re more apt to be open and available for everybody in the room,” Lanius said.

The Bronzeville Arts Ensemble and Theater LILA drew on their theater backgrounds and incorporated new exercises that aren’t used in the normal storytelling workshop, Lanius said, to adapt it for the themes of identity and race.

For instance, one new idea is the privilege walk. Participants start in a straight line. As the facilitator makes statements about race, people move a step forward or backward depending on their personal experiences. Each statement addresses some small privilege based on race.

The second half of the workshop is dedicated to shaping participants’ personal stories, which they present at the end of the workshop.

“The storytelling exercise is actually a very precise exercise–structured and it really is an exercise that helped to shape something that is very raw,” Lanius said.

Some participants will be asked to share their story at a special showing of “The Mojo and the Sayso.”

Overall, Lanius said she felt very grateful for the people who were so generous with their openness because it was an eclectic group, ranging in age, careers and backgrounds.

McKiernan agreed. “It was an exercise, for me, in connecting with strangers and creating instant community around the idea of our shared humanity,” she said.

The next workshop will be held Monday at 9 a.m. at the Overture Center for the Arts.