"American Ethnic" explores, encourages dialogue about questionable media images

Hip-hop, spoken word, and theater aesthetics combine to create this year's production of "American Ethnic" — a piece about how young men and women of color have been portrayed on the stage, screen and radio.

Remy Bumppo Theatre's annual production of thinkTank was started three years ago to engage the civic community in dialogue and discussion about the important issues in life by designating a theme every year. The themes are suggested by audience members on the theatre website and are voted on by the actors and producers. Last year's theme was National Security vs. Personal Freedom. This year's theme is about the mass media's role in perpetuating gender and racial stereotypes.

"It's about giving a stage to voices of dissent, voices not heard," says actor Usman Ally.

The show will star a talented cast, including Usman Ally, Idris Goodwin, and Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai and director, Nick Sandys.

Ally is an actor who starred in a one-man show, "Public Enemy," last year in Remy Bumppo's thinkTank and he was voted Newcity's Top Five Actors of 2008. Ally will speak on his life experiences as a South Asian actor and how the industry tries to "frame his ethnicity in a certain way."

Many of his pieces will relate to reenacting audition scenes, recreating inner monologues, and covering international reporting of media, Ally says.

Goodwin is an award-winning performance artist who blends hip-hop, spoken word and theater aesthetics. He will be speaking from the perspective of a 31-year-old African American of the hip-hop generation who was raised in the suburbs of Detroit.

"Me and Mahmoud down by the Dead Sea" is a scene from the show in which Goodwin will talk about his trip to Amman, Jordan, where he had to confront stereotypes of a hostile Arab world served up by American media.

"Our mass media outlets have tremendous influence and often time waste its opportunities to empower and inform citizens," says Goodwin. "Kelly, Usman and I represent multiple experiences and cultures and we've come together to present our truths."

Tsai is a spoken word artist who has presented more than 300 performances in notable venues such as HBO's "Def Poetry" and has also shared the stage with well-known artists. She will reference her life as a female Chinese Taiwanese American living in Chicago and Brooklyn, but is not limited to just her own personal experiences.

"It's important to me through this show that we each are just as capable of showcasing a universal and broad understanding of American culture as a whole in addition to our own lived experiences," says Tsai.

The actors and director live in different parts of the country and have met together only a couple of times. They mostly collaborated on this work through the Internet by emailing each other ideas, thoughts, and suggestions.

"Working with the three of them...has brought about a really rich combination which will make for a fantastic, fresh, innovative show that I think Chicago and even the larger nation has never experienced before," says Tsai.

After each show, there will be a live discussion hosted by a different speaker. In the past, there have been professors, activists, organizers, etc.

The show will run from March 12 through the 29.