Loy Webb's plays create a neon sign in the darkness | Fall Theater and Dance | Chicago Reader

Loy Webb's plays create a neon sign in the darkness 

In His Shadow, an aspiring football player confronts his brother's legacy and the price of protesting.

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click to enlarge Loy Webb

Loy Webb

Courtesy of the artist

Back in 2016 when she was still practicing law in Chicago, Loy Webb spent four hours every other Saturday mentoring teen girls. It wasn't potential lawyers crowding unused rehearsal rooms at the Goodman, eager to talk with Webb. The young women wanted to know about theater criticism, from analyzing sound design to cleaning up dangling participles. Webb spent a year with the Young Critics program, helping a team of nonmale critics usher in the coming generation. When she bowed out to focus on her own aspirations as a playwright, it was an auspicious shift.

In 2018, Webb's drama The Light opened at Chicago's New Colony theater. A New York City premiere at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater followed. This month brings Webb's much-anticipated sophomore effort, His Shadow, running through October 12 at Berwyn's 16th Street Theater. The one-act follows 18-year-old Jalen "Teeny" Evans and his [offstage] brother Jarell "Juice" Evans, the latter a pro football star, the former determined to make a name for himself. Violence—physical, collateral, historical, emotional—interrupts both their athletic careers.

Webb is based in Los Angeles now, where she's writing vampire adventures for AMC's NOS4A2, which has been renewed for a second season in 2020. She made time between horror deadlines and His Shadow tech rehearsals for a chat about football, protests, and meeting her sheroes.

His Shadow taps into the ongoing story of athletes being punished for protesting: taking a knee, turning a back, raising a fist. Were you inspired by current events?

It's not like I looked around and was like, 'Now I need to write a play about taking a knee.' I started it because I am a huge football fan, but with the protests going on I wasn't able to watch. It would be irresponsible for me to put a play about football onstage without getting into all the stuff going on around it in real life.

It's both depressing and inspiring. [Colin] Kaepernick still doesn't have a job. That's awful. The inspiration part comes from the fact that despite the consequences, athletes are still taking a stand. At the [July] Pan American games in Lima, two athletes [U.S. fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry] got probation for a year for taking a knee or raising a fist. They tried to kill Kap's movement, but it continues to grow.

Teeny's life goals have always been about football, about following his famous older brother. He learns life is bigger than these singular, specific goals we set for ourselves.

Wardell Julius Clark is directing. [Ed. note: Clark is an actor and director whose credits include Dutch Masters at Jackalope and The Shipment at Red Tape.] Why him?

He understands me. It's almost like a sixth sense we have. In the earliest days when I was trying to figure out what this play was, Wardell said, "It's a parable." That was huge, understanding the piece as a parable. I wanted a story that was specific and that could fit in any time and place. Once Wardell called it a parable, that was much more clear to me.

You've included the "Black national anthem" ["Lift Every Voice and Sing"] in the dialogue—sung by a white woman.

That song has uplifted generations of freedom fighters, generations of Black people who have fought for our rights. I've never heard it in a play before. I wanted to illustrate that there are allies from other races in this fight.

You were a practicing attorney for years in Chicago. Now you're writing about vampires in Hollywood. How else has your life changed of late?

I feel like more people are aware of my work and who I am. After The Light played off-Broadway, I had people telling me how much the show inspired them. I have college students asking me to send them monologues. I write to point toward hope. I want my work to be a neon sign in the darkness: This way out. This way to hope.

NOS4A2 is my first TV writing job. It allows me to stretch. I never thought I'd be writing about horror. But I read the book and I was like, "OK, I'll give this a try." The protagonist is a young woman vampire with kickass superpowers. And she's got a badass African American sidekick.

Celebrity encounters?

I met Regina King at a documentary about Toni Morrison. It wasn't a premiere at some big famous theater—it was a couple blocks from my house. She was just wearing regular people clothes, watching the movie. I was with [playwright] Dominique Morisseau, who's my writing shero. She introduced us. Afterwards, I kind of lost it just a little bit.

Do you have other sheroes?

[Vida showrunner] Tanya Saracho is one of my inspirations. I literally patterned my career after her. I read all her interviews, to see how she did it—starting as a playwright in Chicago and moving to television. Come to find out, the Vida writing room is next to the NOS4A2 room. I was walking to the bathroom one day and there's Tanya in the hallway. I stopped her and told her the story of how I patterned my career after her—she was so kind. We took a selfie.  v

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