Last week's midterm elections taught us that political engagement is more crucial than ever.
This makes Ike Holter's Rightlyndopening this week at Lincoln Park's Victory Gardens Theatermore timely than ever. Helmed by Lisa Portes, Holter's drama is part of his seven-play "Chicago Cycle," which began in 2013 with Exit Strategy and wraps up this spring with the world premieres of Red Rex and Lottery Day. Rightlynd follows Chicago Ald. Nina Esposito as she navigates politics and gentrification.
Windy City Times caught up with Holter, 33, for a conversation about art, aldermen, Star Wars and the rarity of work on a production when there aren't any white guys in the room.
Windy City Times: Where does Rightlynd fit in to your Chicago Cycle?
Ike Holter: When I started working on Exit Strategy in 2013, I knew I had to make up a neighborhood that was totally real but at the same time completely fictional. When I developed a neighborhood, I thought of the stores and gangs and rules and lore. [It] was way too much for one play.
I was working on a Goodman commission for a show about people in a Chicago neighborhood around the same time, so I fused them together. It seemed like a natural thing to think about many of these characters knowing the others, and all of them frequenting similar establishments and growing up in a similar way.
It became a really exciting thing: the idea of telling the story of how, over the past decade, a neighborhood could grow and thrive and then slide into collapse. It's happening in so many places in Chicago right now, and it's an issue that a lot of people pretend isn't going down.
WCT: This is Lisa Portes' first time directing a full production of one of your plays. What makes her fit with Rightlynd?
IH: Lisa and I worked on a musical for young audiences I wrote called Night Runner a couple of years ago; she's one of the quickest, most emotionally honest directors I've ever worked with. When I started developing Rightlynd, I knew I needed someone who could make a small play out of a big play.
[Rightlynd] has more than 50 scenes and goes in and out of style and genre; sometimes it's a romantic comedy, sometimes it's a Star Wars-style epic, [and] many times it's blunt and grounded. Lisa has made a career out of doing pieces like This Is Modern Art that live in those criss-crossing worlds. She also saw eye to eye with me on having a room that mirrored the people on stage.
There were many days when we didn't have any white men in the rehearsal room, and for a show that deals explicitly with an all-people-of-color ensemble, it was new for me and made the process that much better. Lisa is Latinx and I'm Black. [The] conversations we were able to explore in the room were essential.
WCT: The main character in Rightlynd is an alderman. Were you influenced by any real events in Chicago politics? How does her story reflect the lives of everyday Chicagoans?
IH: For each of the shows in the [Chicago Cycle], I've done a lot of research: about politics or schools or the crime rates, etc. With this show I got to dive deep into the shaky political history of Chicagodeep enough that I understood the lingo and the rules and the cycles, but not deep enough so I was taking pieces of the real people in Chicago. You're not going to hear any name dropping of people who have been an alderman in the past or serve that title now.
The play is having a conversation about power, and how easily even the best people can be corrupted by it. In a time where we push for people of color and womenfinally - in offices across the country, the play asks what happens when we're not just voting in the booth. Do do we watch them more closely? Do we watch white people in positions of power that closely? There's an election coming up in [April] that will legit change the future of Chicago. Thinking about these ideas is important [and] can be empowering.
WCT: You've been in London, working at the National Theatre. How does the London theater scene compare to Chicago's?
IH: There is no better place for new plays in the world than Chicagonot a diss on London or any other city, I'm legit stating the facts. Audiences here are incredible and they will constantly surprise you.
WCT You've won two Jeffsawards from a committee under fire both its lack of diversity and for not giving many awards to women, POC or genderqueer/trans individuals. What do those awards mean to you?
IH: In a city like Chicago that is more Black and Brown than it is white, you just can't trust any system which believes that 75 percent of the awards need to go to white men. Having a Jeff hasn't helped out my career at all, but I think many of the people on the committee are incredible people and I hope they change their game around.
WCT: What's next for you? You've been flying in and out of town for television work, can you tell me about that?
IH: I'm doing a lot of talk-backs and audience engagement things for Rightlynd, so I'll be around, and then getting ready for Steep's Red Rex [opening in January]. I traveled back and forth to New York as a staff writer for [the FX series] Fosse/Verdon. I'm also seeing every movie imaginable with my movie gang. Some of the best plays I've seen this year were Jackalope's In the Canyon, Mixed Blood's Is god Is and Steppenwolf's You Got Older.
WCT: If you were an alderman, what is one thing you would change?
IH: A lot of my dreams and nightmares about what the position of alderman can do are trapped in Rightlynd. I'll leave it up to the audience to decide where my politics lie within that. That could be a fun drinking game.
Rightlynd runs through Sunday, Dec. 23, at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $41-$61; visit VictoryGardens.org . For information about the world premiere of Holter's Red Rex ( opening Jan. 24 at Steep Theatre ), visit steeptheatre.com . For information about the world premiere of Holter's Lottery Day ( opening March 29 at the Goodman Theatre ), visit GoodmanTheatre.org .