In 2008, Victory Gardens Theater created its Ignition Festival of New Plays, a staged reading series of new works to highlight the theater's mission of bringing diversity to its stage through presentation—and possible development of—new works by playwrights of color under 30. That year, it received 120 submissions and developed two plays into full productions, including "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity," by Kristoffer Diaz, which became a Pulitzer Prize finalist and launched the acting career of its star, Desmin Borges (FX's "You're the Worst").
This year, Victory Gardens opened the call to all playwrights regardless of age or ethnicity and received more than 1,000 submissions. Seven playwrights from around the country were selected: Edgar Award-winner Kia Corthron, Helen Hayes Award-winner Paul Downs Colaizzo, Whitfield Cook Award-winner Lucas Hnath, Chicago native and actor-writer Brian Quijada and Chicagoans Ike Holter ("Exit Strategy"), Sarah Gubbins ("The Kid Thing") and brother-sister hip-hop duo April Fools.
The sister half is Kristiana Colon, 28, who appeared on Season 5 of HBO's "Def Poetry Jam" and whose play, "Octagon," won the Arizona Theater Company's 2014 National Latino Playwriting Award. Her brother, Damon Williams, 21, just graduated from Grinnell College with a double major in economics and sociology. Though the two have different fathers—her dad is Ald. Rey Colon (35th) and his is comedian Damon Williams—they grew up in the same household and began writing and performing hip-hop music together in 2012.
Their one-act play, "Lack on Lack," blends music, spoken word and comedy in a tale that explores a journey across Chicago—and its socioeconomic challenges—to plan a surprise birthday party for their mom. It's part of a double bill with Quijada's "Where Did We Sit on the Bus?," a spoken word piece about a third grader's approach to civil rights. We called Colon (a Logan Square resident) and Williams (who lives in Beverly) to find out more.
'Lack on Lack'
Go: 7 p.m. Thursday at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: Free. RSVP required: 773-871-3000 or victorygardens.org/also-playing/ignition
2014 Ignition Festival of New Plays continues through Sunday
The story behind the name April Fools:
Damon Williams: Our mother's name is April [Williams] and she's an April Fools baby, with her birthday being on the first. We wanted to play on the fact that we're pseudo-intellectuals—I guess Kristiana's more of [laughs] an actual intellectual than I am.
Kristiana Colon: He was always the jock. He was heavily into basketball and video games. And I was the nerdy bookworm of the family.
DW: We're silly and very much about breaking norms which plays into the practical jokey April Fools concept.
The birth of April Fools:
KC: It's funny because my brother and I always lived together. We are six and a half years apart. And I feel like I didn't really know him until he was, like, 16. I guess I was in my mind still an only child. [Laughs.] And then I looked up and I was like, "Oh my gosh, you're a person—and you're cool!"
DW: It started while I was still in school—I just graduated from Grinnell College. I went for basketball and that didn't really work out; I didn't want to do that anymore when I got out there. I needed an outlet so I started poetic pieces that had a hip-hop rhythm to it. And my big sister had been a poet and had dabbled in music for probably 10 years at that point. So as I was starting to tap into my creative side, I was sending stuff her way to get feedback. And she really liked it. So around the Christmas holiday of 2011, we decided, "Hey! Why don't we do this together and try to break the separation between what's considered poetry and what's considered rap and what's considered music?" Because we feel it's all one entity and one form of creation, just with a little different seasoning on it. We were trying to break some of those walls and April Fools was born from that.
KC: And then I was working on a song for The School of the Art Institute's freshmen orientation. Kevin Coval—who is the founder of the Louder Than A Bomb poetry festival—invited me to perform [with a song that would offer] an unconventional tour of Chicago. I was working on this song to welcome these students to Chicago, and I had written about half of it, and because my brother had been hanging around and writing poetry [laughs], I gave him the assignment to write a second verse to the song. He fulfilled that assignment and that became our first music video, our first song, "Traffic." And that began the journey. We launched on March 31, 2012, the day before our mother's birthday. We screened the video. We performed 30 minutes of new material. And then we started getting booked all over the city. And we have been honing our musical style since then.
What to expect from "Lack on Lack":
DW: First of all, a breaking of the rules. One of our biggest goals is to deconstruct some of the decorum of theater. So we're going to engage the audience in a way that is a little bit more vibrant and definitely more of a modern approach to theater. And we're also mixing different art forms, so it's not just traditional drama in the sense of actors on a stage. We're fusing in rap music and poetry and a series of monologues and interactive pieces to have fun and be silly, but address some of the larger societal issues that shape our daily lives and how we see ourselves and see our interactions with others.
On how "Lack on Lack" came to be:
KC: I submitted my play, "Octagon"—which takes place in the world of poetry slam—to the Ignition Festival. It just won this very nice award—the 2014 National Latino Playwriting Award. [Artistic director] Chay Yew emailed me and was like, "I love the play; I love your poetic writing. Are you working on anything new?" [Laughs.] He asked if there was anything smaller. I suspect that may be because "Octagon" has such a big cast that it was more efficient to bring in my poetic voice in a smaller-scale way. And so he led me to the idea of collaborating with my brother on a new, sort of spoken word, hip-hop one-act. That's how the idea came to fruition—basically, Chay [laughs] was like,"We want to include you. Write something new." [Laughs.] And I am not going to say no to Chay Yew.
What each sibling brings to the table:
KC: My brother and I have been writing together collaboratively for about two years, and that's only really been hip-hop thus far, but we're both poets. He's an actor—he's done film and commercials; I've done mostly theater. And so we are bringing together all of our disparate talents to fuse together this one show. And it's really great that we've been asked to do this, 'cause I don't know that we would have thought to [laughs] write a play together had we not been asked to. But it makes perfect sense given our individual strengths and who we are as an entity.
Chicago locations that appear in the show:
KC: Harold's Chicken. [Laughs.] The airport. And then we're navigating a lot of metaphorical spaces. Not necessarily physical space but the space of what is violence in Chicago? What is housing inequity in Chicago? What is nutritional inequity in Chicago?
DW: Harold's is big in my life [laughs] on many levels—more than just really enjoying the food. It's a Chicago staple, especially on the South Side. It's kind of like our McDonald's. So it's something that's very specific to my upbringing. But also, in "Lack on Lack," we're talking about resources and scarcity created by socioeconomics. And one of the biggest ways that that, I think, impacts especially the South and the West Side is nutrients and living in food deserts. And the fact that we depend too heavily on fried food or the corner store or chips and we don't drink enough water or eat enough fruit and vegetables. I know that health is a big issue facing all Americans right now. But I also know that I just had four wings and mild sauce yesterday, [laughs] so I can't take a holier-than-thou position. So what we're trying to do is address a lot of these issues, but also discuss how we participate in them.
Where the title "Lack on Lack" originated:
KC: We're taking a very playful approach to unpack some big ideas that we've been wrestling with since he [Damon] graduated with his [laughs] dual degree in economics and sociology. He went off to college and he read lots of books and now has lots of theories [laughs] coming home. That's kind of where the title, "Lack on Lack," comes from. "Don't lack" is a millennial urban vernacular term that means "don't get caught slipping." If you missed the party on Friday, you're lacking. If you get caught without your gun in a fight, you're lacking. That is very fresh language right now. And so we're playing on that, but then we're also exploring the literal meaning of lack and how ideas of lack in all these different institutional ways fuel the problems that we're observing in our city.
Their parents' influences on their artistic careers:
KC: Our parents are hugely supportive. My mom is my biggest fan. She comes to everything. She was bartending at our last event. She's in the front row for every performance of every play that I've ever written. And we're very, very blessed to come from a family that is not at all discouraging of pursuing the arts as a career.
DW: I feel that the way I'm strongest right now is as a performer, being able to deliver my art directly. And that's because my parents—especially my mom—always pushed me towards the stage. I actually did a lot of public speaking as a child with my mother about economics and finances. [His mother teaches financial literacy and independence to inner city youth through community outreach initiatives.] So I got very comfortable speaking in front of people. She always had me doing a seminar at churches and things like that. And then I followed my dad around and kind of grew up in comedy clubs and comedy shows. Getting the language of performing and interacting with an audience since a young age has made me very comfortable as I started to create my own work and try to bring a new approach to hip-hop.
KC: My mom and my dad met in a writing class at Columbia College. Neither one of them graduated but that's how they fell in love. And so that's very much a part of my creation myth...that my parents are writers. And when I was little, my mom was acting in plays and taking me to rehearsal with her. So that has always been normalized as a part of my world. And they've been very supportive in terms of not being like, "Oh, you should get a real job." [Laughs.]
Do they get nervous when April's in the audience?
KC: It's an ever-present concern of mine in all the art that we do. Definitely, when we're putting together a set I'm thinking about how my mom's going to respond to us cursing. When we first started writing, we really, I think, were clinging to a more clean-cut image and so tried to not use profanity at all. [Laughs.] Definitely, our mom being so embedded in the fabric of what we do shaped that. And we still—in terms of rap music—are pretty clean but we have given ourselves the freedom to use profanity if necessary.
DW: It's hard 'cause I'm my mom's baby. Any time the language goes above PG-13 [laughs], which I'm not afraid to do, I'm aware that my mom and also my mom's friends are there. Issues of sexuality are always difficult onstage while my mom is there—it's always weird. Vulgarity—I'll drop the f-bomb. Even the n-word is something that I know [she] can be sensitive about. And I'm very political about my usage of the n-word and very intentional with it. We have differences on that topic, so she always has to deal with it [laughs] when I'm onstage. We definitely have different outlooks on what's politically correct sometimes.
KC: And as a playwright, I am always infusing my writing with stories that she might recognize [laughs] from her real life, from my real life. And she really has had to develop some thick skin in that respect, in that any time she comes to see anything of mine, she might see something shocking about herself or about me onstage. And it's actually been great for our relationship [laughs] because we've just got to get over it and keep moving. 'Cause I'm not going to censor those things out of my writing.
Julia Borcherts is a RedEye special contributor. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyechicago