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To Be a Long Hauler; or, If We Build It We Can Thrive

One puff Advair, one Singulair, two hits of Nasacort, one Zyrtec, two puffs of Albuterol, one Benzonate, three Ibuprofen.

In August 2021, I took these medications every day to perform School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play. We were the first Chicago production to do in-person performances with a live audience since March 2020. The show was shut down three days before opening due to the pandemic. There was promise that we'd pick up as soon as the virus “cleared.” Two to three weeks turned into sixteen months.

In March 2020, I also got COVID. After COVID, I got pneumonia. I saw a general practitioner, a pulmonologist, a cardiologist, and a breathing specialist. “Congratulations on surviving,” the cardiologist said in a follow-up exam. My X-ray looked like my lungs were a sky full of clouds. He wondered out loud why the pulmonologist never gave me a breathing test.

Clear medical bias was in play. My white stepson had tests and saw specialists when he had breathing issues in the same time period. The first time I felt heard and taken seriously, my doctor was Black.

All told, I was in bed for four weeks. When I was somewhat in the clear, a simple walk exhausted me. I felt lousy all the time. I experienced excruciating fatigue and memory loss. At times, I forgot what I was saying mid-word. What was once seasonal asthma is now chronic. Lingering issues designated me with long hauler status.

Every few months I'd get an email from my agent checking my availability for a return to School Girls. The Goodman producers were bringing the show back as soon as it was safe. The first dates came and went. The second dates came in April. Finally, the producers slated rehearsals to begin on July 16th with an August 2nd opening.

A photograph of the twelve people standing in front of a TV showing a person smiling

The company of School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play on the first day of rehearsal.

 

I said I was available because... of course. “Available” meant determined to finish what I started. But available mentally and physically? I wasn't sure.

March 2020 was the happiest I'd ever been in a professional context. I never felt such a sense of belonging. I was in a cast of all Black women, directed by a Black woman, in a play written by a Black woman.

Now, in 2021, I am a woman who came close to death and existed from her bed for weeks while two children learned online and a husband worked from home. I'm a woman who, while recovering from COVID delivered twenty-two online anti-racism workshops in the aftermath of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Botham Jean. I conducted a workshop the same day Breonna Taylor's murderer escaped accountability. The participants of the workshop were white. I held a moment of silence before I began. I wished I didn’t have to speak at all.

My sense of hope in what was possible was completely jaded. In March of 2020, School Girls rehearsals and previews were a highlight of my career. Sixteen months later, the show was a painful reminder of how life can annihilate hopes and dreams. When humans make plans, God laughs. I didn't dare hope again. I didn't dare believe the show would actually open in August.

It all felt daunting. “Let me get this straight,” I'd joke, “I'm supposed to leave my house. Every. Day. For weeks in a row. Interact with other human beings other than my family. Pack a lunch. Drive a car further than the Target down the street from me. Rehearse a play. In person. Be out of my house for eight hours. In a row. Also, be a mom and a wife. Huh.”

I kept thinking, I want to show up as my authentic self. I don't want to stuff everything I've been through in a box and present my happy-smiley-professional face. Professionalism is important to me. I like being reliable, on time if not early; an example for other cast members. There have been too many times that I buried parts of myself to maintain that veneer.

My generation of actors bought the “show must go on” bill of goods. We fell for it hook, line, and sinker. The younger generation isn't buying it. They boldly protect themselves from an industry that considers actors’ needs last.

In 2012, my youngest child, age two at the time, went into the hospital because of breathing issues. She had to stay overnight and I slept in the room with her. The following day I had the first rehearsal for a major show at a major theatre. I couldn't fathom telling the stage manager I couldn't attend due to a family emergency. Instead, my husband called off work so he could spend the day with her as they completed tests.

It's fine that my husband was with her but I wanted to be there as her mother. My baby wasn't well. Not only did I attend the first rehearsal when I had a kid in the hospital, I didn't tell anyone about my situation. I felt compelled to appear as if everything was fine.

In July, I was on WGN Radio promoting the show when the host referred to me as “a veteran performer.” I thought, Holy shit, I’m a veteran performer! I was also the oldest person in the cast; old enough to be the majority of the casts’ mother—not a particularly young mom, either.

My generation of actors bought the “show must go on” bill of goods. We fell for it hook, line, and sinker. The younger generation isn't buying it. They boldly protect themselves from an industry that considers actors’ needs last. Once we were in rehearsal, their advocacy surprised and inspired me.

But I spent the week leading up to rehearsal worried about how I was going to make it through the process. I thought I'd need certain accommodations but was uncertain about making them known. Do I present myself as a long hauler or try to act as if I'm fine; the same gal who rehearsed the show pre-pandemic?

I didn't want a target on my back so I decided I would address my needs on a case-by-case basis. I rationalized this by thinking, Maybe I'll be fine and I won't need any special attention. In truth, I had a looming fear that long hauler would show up on my “permanent record.”

The first day of rehearsal was joyous yet cautious. After a meet and greet with staff via Zoom, the cast and director turned toward one another. Lili-Anne Brown, the director, said, “Let's check in and see where we are. This is a lot.”

Fourteen people standing outside in front of a building.

The company of School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play on opening night.

With that statement, she reflected the complexities of our return. She captured how we were on top of the world, living our dreams as Black empowered women making art together. She pinpointed how our hearts shattered when the show shut down. She summoned George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper, and more into the space.

One by one we shared our experiences from the last sixteen months. One by one our trepidation turned to trust and we spoke our truth.

“I am physically and emotionally exhausted,” I said as I started a pretty cry; eyes cast upward, light tears. “The past sixteen months have been rough. I feel like a completely different person...” Then I spilled the beans, as if being that vulnerable was the first thing on my agenda rather than the last. They met me with total support, empathy, and love. Speaking my truth from the get-go was one of the best choices in self-care I've ever made.

The next day Alden, the stage manager I've known for over thirty years, sat next to me at the beginning of rehearsal. “Tania, I want you to know we've got you. We don't want you to ever feel pressure to perform or be at rehearsal. Your understudy is ready. We have your back.”

Now, I was on the edge of an Oprah-level ugly cry. I was moved, relieved, and grateful. In one monologue, Alden alleviated my stress. The director and the stage manager set a tone that enabled me to show up as my authentic self. And I did. I asked for what I needed and got it. I made it through. We opened. We had a hell of a successful run.

There's a moment in the play where I run to center stage and scream, “Hey! That's enough!” to stop chaos all around me. During rehearsals, I struggled to produce the sound through my inflamed airwaves. It always came but it never felt guaranteed and it was never the same level as my first round as the character.

On opening night, the moment came and my voice broke through. Not only did I silence the characters on stage, the audience fell dead silent, too. Lili-Anne said this at the opening night party: “This process has been about you struggling to get back your voice. And in that moment, you did it.”

At the end of the run, I was down to two medications. I had my normal amount of energy. Fatigue was due to an eight-show schedule, cuz an eight-show schedule is hard, yo.

Nine women sitting on benches and smiling at the camera.

(L to R) Photograph of Ciera Dawn, Kyrie Courter, Adhana Reid, (center) Lili-Anne Brown, (back) Ashley Crowe, Tiffany Renee Johnson, Lanise Antoine Shelley, Adia Alli, Tania Richard, photo by Flint Chaney.

Standing in my truth throughout enabled me to be at my most powerful. That paired with a leadership team focused on creating an inclusive, equitable, accessible space where individuals could be authentic and thrive, carried us through the finish line.

It’s not math. It’s not science. The elements needed to create an inclusive and equitable space are basic; simple. As a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant and performer I recommend the following:

  • A culture of transparency: As a consultant, I do not keep secrets for the powers that be. Producers and creative teams need to tell the truth and leave no room for interpretation. A lack of information or context leads to confusion, resentment, and poor morale.
  • A quick turnaround of the next day’s call times: Doing this shows a respect for people’s time and allows the cast and staff to engage in their lives outside of rehearsal. They can prepare the material for the next day’s rehearsal in a timely manner. They can plan to exercise, run errands, have therapy, rest.
  • Addressing collaborators’ needs before the art: This overall philosophy prioritizes human beings.
  • Reciprocal feedback, and a willingness to apologize and make changes: This is essential for an inclusive and equitable culture. Leadership must be willing to receive feedback. They must right any wrongs. Their feedback needs to be concise, unbiased, and transparent. An opportunity to follow up should also be provided.
  • Checking in on the team's emotional state before each work day begins: I found this crucial during the rehearsal process of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. It was the reason I was able to show up as my authentic self and do my best work. Rehearsing in these post-pandemic times requires intentional care.
  • Listening sessions facilitated by a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant if and when concerns arise: I serve as the facilitator for essential and frank conversations during rehearsal. It always moves the process forward and clears up miscommunications, misunderstandings, and missteps. It creates a sense of security. Producers and creative teams are able to make informed accommodations.
  • One run-through a day in rehearsal: Knowing I would not have to run the show more than once gave me a sense of peace. I was able to give the run-through my full energy.
  • Eight out of ten tech rehearsals instead of ten out of twelve: This is one of the demands in We See You White American Theatre. The Goodman Theatre has adopted eight out of ten technical rehearsals. Tech week was more manageable. I didn’t head home bleary-eyed and exhausted.

Moving forward, as theatre practitioners we must provide conditions that empower people to be at their best. Broken bodies, spirits, and minds can no longer be an acceptable sacrifice to make art. I have been a part of an equitable and inclusive production and that level of care made all the difference. As a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant, it is my job to advocate for everyone to have that experience. As an artist, it is my hope that this becomes the new normal.

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