Since founding the International Voices Project in 2010, Patrizia Acerra and her artistic associates have brought playwrights from around the globe to the attention of Chicago audiences. The annual International Voices Project Festival presents staged readings (often in partnership with other cultural institutions and consulates) that introduce writers who are largely unknown in the U.S.
During the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, the festival went virtual; as Acerra (who serves as executive director for IVP) noted to Reader contributor Catey Sullivan at the time, the silver lining was “For the first time our global work can have a global audience.” IVP has also partnered with other companies in the past to coproduce full runs; in fall of 2019, they collaborated with Silk Road Rising on the latter’s production of Fouad Teymour’s Twice, Thrice, Frice . . ., directed by Acerra.
Now they’re presenting a full production of their own. Ahmed Masoud’s The Shroud Maker, directed by Marina Johnson, opens this weekend at Chicago Dramatists. Loosely based on the real story of a still-living woman in Gaza who makes shrouds for those killed in the ongoing conflict with Israel, Masoud’s solo play stars Roxane Assaf-Lynn as 80-year-old Hajja Souad, who grew up as the adopted daughter of Palestine’s British High Commissioner in the 1940s and has lived through decades of subsequent turmoil, violence, and oppression.
The Shroud Maker
3/16-4/8: Previews Thu-Fri 3/16-3/17 7:30 PM; opens Sat 3/18 3 PM; then 3/19-4/8 Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; Chicago Dramatists, 798 N. Aberdeen, ivpchicago.org, previews $10, regular run $20 ($15 senior, $10 students based on availability)
It certainly sounds heavy, of course—but the IVP press release describes it as a “dark comedy.” The Shroud Maker was part of the (live) IVP Festival in September of last year, but Acerra was already planning a subsequent full production back in June. “It was brought to us by Rohina [Malik] of Medina Theater,” notes Acerra. “We collaborated with them and with Uprising Theater.” Maren Rosenberg, co-artistic director of Uprising, directed the reading.
“It was a magical moment,” says Acerra. “I love all of the pieces we bring in, but there was a sense of urgency, beauty, and grittiness about the piece. I love when plays are topical, but also universal at the same time. Particularly when you’re doing global pieces, so it’s not about indicting any particular culture or situation. It’s a way to get into a conversation about global events in a broad, reflective kind of way.”
For this production, Acerra turned to Marina Johnson, who worked as assistant director on Twice, Thrice, Frice . . ., to direct. Johnson is currently a third-year PhD candidate in theater and performance studies at Stanford. She also cohosts the podcast Kunafa and Shay, which is dedicated to “pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the United States,” through the theater website HowlRound.
Johnson interviewed Masoud, who is also a novelist, on the podcast. The playwright, who moved from Palestine to the U.K. in 2002, will not be able to attend the Chicago production, given the heightened tensions in Gaza. Johnson notes of the current script, “It sort of ends in 2018 in the current iteration, but it feels like it could have ended last week.” She adds, “The play stands in a full timeline from before 1948 to more recent times, so the history and the telling of the story really grounds the play and makes it especially relevant.”
The Shroud Maker is playing concurrently with Layalina, the first world premiere by a SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) playwright at the Goodman. Rosenberg of Uprising is currently directing rehearsals for Samer Al-Saber’s Decolonizing Sarah: a hurricane play, which opens at the end of March at the Den Theatre. (Al-Saber is also one of Johnson’s professors at Stanford.)
Reflecting on the seemingly increasing profile of playwrights with SWANA roots, Johnson notes that there has been a great deal of coalition building among theaters. In addition to her association with IVP, Johnson is also a member of Silk Road Rising’s Polycultural Institute and is an associate literary manager with Bay Area-based Golden Thread Productions’s ReOrient Festival.
“Silk Road Rising started in response to 9/11 and has been going for a while,” says Johnson. “But the way that these communities have been showing care for plays and playwrights and actors and directors I think is really responsible in this rise, especially this moment in Chicago. It’s great to see the payoff happening. What started in smaller communities in smaller ways has been able to build to this point.”
Acerra notes that they are collaborating with Intercultural Music Production (also a creative partner for Layalina) for The Shroud Maker. Palestinian American musician Ronnie Malley created the sound design.
“Helping a new play get to production is a fascinating, important, incredibly difficult, rewarding job,” says Acerra. She credits other companies, including Trap Door and Chicago Shakespeare (home to the WorldStage series) for their long commitment to bringing international work to Chicago audiences, along with cultural institutions such as Instituto Cervantes, which hosted the most recent IVP Festival.
“After living in Rome for a few years and producing over there, I came back with this passion to really do this exchange,” says Acerra. “One of the things I noticed is that there really weren’t a lot of American plays over there. And in the States, there really wasn’t a way to get more of these international scripts into the hands of producers. So one of our original impulses was to do this festival in collaboration with cultural partners in the city to create opportunities for Chicago directors, producers, artists of any kind, and cultural collaborators to see the work and ideally produce it. I used to call it speed dating. And it often worked.” Acerra notes that around a dozen plays first presented in the IVP Festival have gone on to full productions elsewhere.
Now they’re bringing a full production to fruition themselves.
For the IVP team, the great hope remains that bringing international stories to local audiences fosters empathy and understanding of other cultures. Johnson points out that Masoud’s play “draws on this oral tradition in Middle Eastern storytelling of the hakawati—the storyteller. I love that it brings that to life in a different way. It includes the audience in a different sort of world that is larger and all-encompassing.”
Local Universe presents Color Club Comedy
Irving Park’s Color Club (a project of Local Universe, purveyors of the Cosmic Country Showcase and standup showcase Yard Party) presents Color Club Comedy on Saturday, March 18. Among the performers is a familiar name for longtime Reader readers: Rachel Joravsky, daughter of political columnist Ben Joravsky. She’ll be joined by Karen Chee (Late Night With Seth Meyers) and Rachel Pegram (vet of Netflix, The Chris Gethard Show, and Comedy Central, among other credits). Joravsky, who now lives in Harlem, has been featured on Comedy Central, MTV, and BET, and also performs with her sketch group, Lo-Fi NYC.
According to the Color Club website, the goal of the monthly showcase is to “feature the core off-the-wall talent of the Club that’s young, bright, and diverges from your typical and tired comedy club tropes.” You can check it out for yourself at Color Club, 4146 N. Elston. The show starts at 8 PM (doors 7:30 PM, 18+), and tickets are $15 through EventBrite.