Audience Blog

Audience Blog #13: Hanna Khan (Chicago)

Audience Blog #13: Hanna Khan (Chicago)

Progress Theatre’s “Audience Blog” features responses to live PT performances written exclusively by show attendees we meet on tour.

How did you hear about PT?   — I actually did not hear about Progress Theater until the day my friend invited me to go to the performance with her and another friend. So basically, my introduction to this performance was through her and, later, via the website. Regardless, I am grateful that I had a chance to experience the show.

Was this your first PT performance, workshop or engagement?   — Yes, this was my first PT performance.

When was the last time you made progress?   — I feel that progress is synonymous with change and development—even on the smallest level. Although I find change difficult to encounter at times, it is important to anyone’s growth. I feel that making better decisions on a daily basis—such as taking the initiative to eat better, sleep more, read carefully, and be more conscious of what I do—contributes to progress in my life.

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It All Begins with Awareness

So many thoughts come to mind upon experiencing the unforgettable play, The Burnin’,   but the very first is its commitment to awareness — awareness of oneself and awareness of that which is all around. And the timing couldn’t be more prescient. As the ensemble toured in Chicago on Saturday, January 28th, 2017, an executive order was already signed to ban immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries as well as refugees indefinitely. Yet in the face of sadness, hopelessness and injustice, this performance — an amalgam of song, dance, acting and a commitment to social change — sparkled. It was a nice reminder of the power of art being used to shed light on the cutting issues that still exist.

With one of the most diverse audiences that I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of, the sold-out play, tucked away in a cozy Lincoln Park theater and set respectively in 1940 and 2003, still speaks to many social issues prevalent in contemporary America: race, love, lack of love, unequal socioeconomic conditions, the power of protest, lack of opportunity, cultural appropriation, gender, justice, white privilege and more. The four-person ensemble — with each actor not only performing, but brilliantly encapsulating her or his character — portrayed different people overcoming their own obstacles in life and coming to terms with their surroundings, each from their own unique vantage point. This cast wowed the crowed and lit up the stage, both with their acting and melodic talents. Particularly memorable and equally heartbreaking was Tiana Kaye Johnson‘s performance as Boo, a young woman who doesn’t receive love or kindness back from the man she loves. Her pulsing heartache is later nurtured by her belief in waiting to find love with someone who will love her “the way that [she] loves [herself].”

The near two-hour experience not only highlighted contemporary social issues from two distinct time periods; but also, on a lighter note, demonstrated a knack for utilizing the perks of theatricality to reap the most from the theater experience. This was best exemplified when the cast quickly transformed from character to character right on the stage before a scene change or a new musical number. The only theater performances that I have seen — and there are only a handful — never incorporated this technique for the audience’s theater experience. It was fun and new.

Although the performance was a tour de force from all involved, the real treat was the post-play Q&A section in which the cast and director took questions from the audience and put into context the many elements that made up the play. Additionally, each actor provided a guiding vision that they had for their character as well as the factors that inspired them to contribute to this play. The audience also delighted as they asked probing and thoughtful questions. Some of these questions stuck with me days after the show. One member of the audience asked the cast how they related to their characters since the performances were so strong that they brought her back to memories of her own past, and if she was able to reconnect with her memories, then the cast may have also had to latch onto genuine memories in order to perform these characters honestly.

Another audience member asked how this play fared for viewers with differing viewpoints on the sociopolitical divide of the country. He brought up a good point as he stated that right now it seems like there are two Americas: one that embodies diversity and inclusivity and one that doesn’t. He posed if there were any viewers who didn’t initially have an inclination towards diversity and tolerance, yet changed their minds after viewing The Burnin’, and appreciate the social change message therein. The cast indicated a variegated response to this question. Depending on where they toured this show, some audience responses ranged from inspired to nonplussed to a downright walkout. Even if the reply wasn’t exactly uplifting, anyone could appreciate the honesty. I certainly did. Another gentleman in the crowd, who was in attendance with his young daughters, praised the play by commenting on how grateful he was that his daughters had a chance to view a work that had significant messages of worth for young women.

After the wrapping of the show, I was lucky enough to speak with writer-director Dr. Cristal Chanelle Truscott. I expressed to her that a week prior, I taught some selections of African American literature to one of my writing classes. We did a close-reading of canonized poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Lucille Clifton alongside some contemporary opinion articles on race and also read briefly about the relationship between hip-hop music and social change. But the thing that piqued Dr. Truscott’s interest in our brief conversation was my insistence on teaching a combination of writing composed by canonized writers and lesser-known writers alike. As an educator, I also believe that the ability to look further and beyond what you see or read is also important. The same level of attention and awareness needs to be afforded to art that is powerful and deeply moving in content yet relatively obscured when it comes to popularity. The following Monday after watching this play, I discussed it with my class and had them visit Progress Theater’s website to read the story behind the work. I hope that one day they can not only be encouraged to watch something meaningful and relevant but be moved by it, too.

This performance has something for everyone. Whether you are actor or audience, man or woman, discriminator or the discriminated, heartbreaker or heartbroken, you will walk away feeling like this story can be yours. It captures equally the past and the present, and sometimes, almost too chillingly. I watched this play when I was sad and emotional at the direction in which the nation was headed and was still reeling from some personal disappointments in my own life. But as a Muslim woman, a minority, and an educator, I also felt hopeful. The crowd in the Chicago theater that night represented the diversity and inclusivity that the nation and the world need more of right now, and they were aware of that. I am aware, too.

Hanna Khan is an Intensive English writing instructor who feels privileged to teach students who come from all over the world to achieve fluency in the English language and gain an education in the United States. In her spare time, Hanna enjoys reading a variety of literature, watching television and film, cooking, and traveling.

⇐⇐ Read Audience Blog #12: “Super Power: Unshakeable Emotions” by Avery Neveille Thompson

Read Audience Blog #14: “Woke Ruminations” by Tracie Rhesean Davis ⇒⇒

Progress Theatre

February 28th, 2017

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