In the Spirit performance celebrates black women’s stories and accomplishments | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

In the Spirit performance celebrates black women’s stories and accomplishments 

Chicago-based duo combined poetry and singing with audience testimonials

click to enlarge Emily Hooper Lansana (left) and Zahra Baker perform "Sister Girls and Freedom Fighters" at the Green Line Performing Arts Center as part of its GreenLine series. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Emily Hooper Lansana (left) and Zahra Baker perform "Sister Girls and Freedom Fighters" at the Green Line Performing Arts Center as part of its GreenLine series.
  • Danielle A. Scruggs

On a cold, damp February night, a small but dedicated audience gathered at the Green Line Performing Arts Center to celebrate the accomplishments of black women for In the Spirit's "Sister Girls and Freedom Fighters," a performance combining poetry, spoken word, storytelling, and singing with created opportunities for testimonials from audience members. The performance is part of the center's GreenLight Series, which features various performing arts disciplines.

Chicago-based In the Spirit is Zahra Baker and Emily Hooper Lansana, who have been performing together for nearly 20 years. The Green Line Performing Arts Center in Washington Park opened in November 2018 as part of a growing arts corridor along Garfield Boulevard fueled by the University of Chicago. The area is also home to the Arts Incubator Gallery and a new iteration of Currency Exchange Café.

"Sister Girls and Freedom Fighters" took place in the center's black-box theater, an intimate space with four rows of ten seats and no stage. There were very little technical effects outside of a few lighting changes and that simple setup proved powerful because of the formidable yet warm presence of Baker, who sang, and Lansana, who performed spoken word and told stories in the tradition of the griot, the West African oral historians who are keepers of knowledge.

The duo told six stories through poetry, spoken word, and songs about black women who sought to make a difference, punctuated by poems and stories from audience members. They paid homage to Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who led a women-forward peace movement and sex strike that helped end the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003; Wangari Maathai, an environmental activist who planted 300 million trees throughout Kenya to combat deforestation; and Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther and freedom fighter who remains in exile in Cuba.

click to enlarge Hooper and Lansana - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Hooper and Lansana
  • Danielle A. Scruggs

Baker played the talking drum and sang, providing the soundtrack for Lansana as she recited poems and told stories of brave women from across the world.

They also encouraged audience participation, which meant everyone would sing and clap along to the refrains of empowerment. It reminded me of the church services I attended with my grandmother sometimes when I was a child, with different voices singing in unison and different voices sharing personal testimony, drawing us close together for the duration of the time we were together in the same space.

One of the most powerful moments came when a young woman in the audience told an incredibly personal tale of intergenerational trauma, abusive relationships, and her ongoing attempt to unlearn toxic behaviors that have been modeled by previous generations. She also shared details of the day she realized that she had the power to fight back against anyone who crossed her boundaries-even if that person was her own father. It speaks to Lansana and Baker's integrity as performers that they were able to create a safe enough space for audience members to share intimate details like this.

Surprisingly, the open-mike presentations flowed well with the stories, poems, and songs, and it seemed like the order had been planned beforehand, but it was very spontaneous and free-flowing. The whole evening amounted to both a celebration and demonstration of the perseverance, bravery, and ingenuity of black women.

The next performances in the GreenLight series will be from Second City's space, starting in March.  v

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