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At Wirtz Center Chicago, boundary-pushing shows about a violent history

Chicago premiere musical and off-Broadway theatre explore little-known truths about slavery
wirtz center chicago
Underground Railroad Game," performed by Scott Sheppard (left) and Jennifer Kidwell (right), is one of two visiting productions that explore little-known truths about the history of slavery. Photo by Arts Nova

Northwestern’s Wirtz Center for Performing and Media Arts in Chicago hosts two new and innovative professional productions this spring that explore little-known truths about the history of slavery.

“Mexodus,” written and performed by Chicago native Brian Quijada and Chicago transplant Nygel Robinson, was inspired by the estimated 4,000 to 10,000 enslaved people in the southern United States who found new lives in Mexico instead of moving North. This lesser-known chapter of the Underground Railroad is an exploration of Black and brown bodies standing together against oppression. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 28 and Saturday, April 29.

“Underground Railroad Game,” a satiric, R-rated, kaleidoscopic and fearless comedy in which two middle-school teachers use games to teach uncomfortable lessons about American racial history, was inspired by an actual game that co-creator Scott Sheppard was forced to play in fifth grade when his school re-enacted the Civil War. The students were divided into Union and Confederate soldiers and won points for their team for either capturing Black dolls that represented escaped slaves or helped them flee to Canada. The show, hailed by The New York Times as one of the “25 best American plays since ‘Angels in America,’” runs at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 18, Friday, May 19, and at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 20.

“These two works show us how our country’s tragic and violent history has created everything from the location of national borders to unspoken power dynamics and a lot in between,” said Tanya Palmer, assistant dean and executive artistic director for the School of Communication. 

“Mexodus” is a new musical still in development and “Underground Railroad Game” is an acclaimed off-Broadway production that’s getting its Chicago premiere at Wirtz Center Chicago. Palmer says both are examples of the kinds of timely and boundary-pushing work that Northwestern’s newest theater space plans to present in future seasons.

Palmer says the theater furthers the school’s DEI initiatives and fills a growing need for venues presenting innovative work from professional local, national and international artists to Chicago audiences. 

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some theaters and performance spaces that supported new plays and musicals were shuttered,” Palmer said. “The new Wirtz Center Chicago expands Northwestern’s ability to incubate and develop new performance works from our students, but also visiting professional artists and ensembles.”

Wirtz Center Chicago is located inside Abbott Hall at 710 N. Lake Shore Drive on the Chicago campus.

Since the fall of 2021, the theater has hosted several new works, including Atlanta-based Alliance Theater’s production of “Native Guard,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poems by Northwestern English professor Natasha Trethewey, as well as numerous student productions and events. Wirtz Center Chicago also provides a space for classes and projects from the School of Communication’s MFA programs in acting, stage design, directing, sound arts and industries, documentary media and writing for the screen and stage.

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