Chicago playwright unfolds black liberation onto Goodman stage

Courtesy Xavier Ramey
Chicago activist, writer and poet Kristiana Rae ColÓn is a supporter of black liberation against police brutality and translates her activism work to her writing and music. 

By ARTS & CULTURE REPORTER

Florrisant and Canfield used to be just another a street intersection in Ferguson, Missouri. Now, it is much more.

In 2014, Michael Brown was killed by acquitted police officer Darren Wilson at the intersection. As it became a place for national protests against police brutality, it also inspired a new play by Chicago activist and poet Kristiana Rae Colón.

“Florissant & Canfield” started as new work that was part of the VG Reading Series at Victory Gardens Theater before getting picked up by The Goodman Theatre during its annual playwriting unit for Chicago writers. Now, the play is part of the theater’s New Stages Festival, running from Sept. 21–Oct. 9, and is free to the public. The play will perform as a sold-out staged reading Oct. 9 at the Goodman, 170 N. Dearborn St.

Colón is using this play to move stories of political activism from the streets of Ferguson to the stage—a medium that is still generally geared toward white audiences, she said. While it is a risk, Colón said she is grateful for the chance to have her work performed.

“I am delighted the Goodman has been brave enough to take on such a radical piece of theater,” Colón said.

Colón’s new play combines poetry with her theatrical background and experience protesting in Ferguson and Chicago, making it relevant and timely, according to Tanya Palmer, director of New Play Development at the Goodman.

“We have a long history of taking on challenging subjects that tend to be about what is happening in the world today,” Palmer said, discussing Colón’s work.

Goodman Theatre has a tradition of catering to diverse audiences with its performances, and programs like New Stages aim to increase its attraction for all of Chicago’s communities, not just a certain demographic, she said. 

Colón, who was a poet with the Louder Than a Bomb program and was on season five of HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam,” has her roots in poetry slams. Colón brought the genre to another one of her plays, “Octagon,” which follows a group of slam poets who speak on political events such as the aggression of ISIS and police brutality. The show had its world premiere in London in September 2015 and will have its U.S. premiere with Jackalope Theatre at the Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N. Broadway, on Oct. 19.

“Florissant & Canfield,” which incorporates poetry and hip-hop, commemorates the birth of Black Lives Matter and the engagement of black youth in activism, breaking the stereotype that they do not care about political engagement, Colón said. 

“We have reached a majority in our activism that we realize we cannot only be reactionary or organizing in opposition,” Colón said. “Having a march every time someone gets shot is a really good way to exhaust yourself but not necessarily a good way to build power in communities.” 

Colón is not only known for her writing but also her leadership skills, said her brother Damon Williams, who is part of the “Florrisant & Canfield” ensemble and co-founded the #LetUsBreathe Collective with Colón.

“Her work ethic and the consistency of her grind, while also being critical of the world around us, [shows that] she has a way of putting it on the page, putting it on the stage in a way that brings people together and challenges folks,” Williams said.

Williams plays a character named 3 Piece whom the duo met while in Ferguson with #LetUsBreathe, which supports protesters and victims of police brutality who have organized protests in Chicago.

Director Monty Cole, a former artistic program manager at Victory Gardens, said the play amazed him because of how it resembles a documentary.

“It is so accurate that it is almost like you are watching what actually happened in Ferguson,” Cole said.

He said the blending of fiction with truth and having real activists and poets in the cast make the play stand out. 

“It’s sold out, it’s tackling this topic, it’s black as hell and it’s happening at the Goodman—that is a crazy bit to me,” he said. 

Williams said the Goodman featuring Colón’s writing and telling marginalized stories and making sure actors of color get the spotlight is positive for a big institution.

“A show about a movement drenched in black liberation is powerful done anywhere,” Williams said. “But, to do it on arguably the biggest stage in the city and the most established brand in the theater world in Chicago is inherently radical.”