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The League of Chicago Theatres awards the 2022 Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship to Jerrell L. Henderson and Free Street Theater
Chicago (January 25, 2022) – The League of Chicago Theatres has awarded the 2022 Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship to director Jerrell L. Henderson and Free Street Theater. Henderson will be awarded $20,000 for participation in the program and Free Street Theater will be awarded $7,500 for its support of the artist. The fellowship is funded by the McMullen & Kime Charitable Trust and administered by the League of Chicago Theatres. Applications were reviewed by an external panel of Chicago directors, actors, playwrights and administrators.
Jerrell L. Henderson and Free Street Theater will collaborate on AmericanMYTH: Crossroads, a new genre-defying historic reckoning with five performers mixing live theatre, shadow puppetry, lights, and immersive sound to be produced in the fall of 2022.
“Free Street Theater is committed to work that focuses on racial and economic justice in ways that are broadly accessible to audiences who may not feel culturally affirmed in most theatrical spaces,” comments Free Street Theater Artistic Director Coya Paz. “We are particularly excited about Jerrell’s vision for using shadow puppets and movement to explore the mythology of racism in America. His work will provoke critical thought in ways that feel fun, spectacular, and accessible to diverse audiences.”
Jerrell L. Henderson adds, “This piece speaks to the spirit in which I knew Sam. I never got the chance to know Sam well, but he changed my life. The first event I remember attending in Chicago was “We Must Breathe” at Victory Gardens. Sam hosted the talk back and used ‘I love you’ to keep folx in check with time restraints. I never saw that before. In just about all of my interactions with Sam, he was promoting love and community. He inspired me to make sure I had something worth saying anytime I opened my mouth or typed on a keyboard. I see participating in this fellowship as an opportunity to do that.”
Executive Director of the League of Chicago Theatres Deb Clapp comments, “This is our second year awarding this fellowship thanks to a generous grant from the McMullen & Kime Charitable Trust. Opening the grant to directors this year enabled us to look at the amazing work being done by Black directors in Chicago, and we are so pleased that Jerrell and Free Street Theater will collaborate on this project. The League of Chicago Theatres is honored to administer this fellowship in Sam Roberson’s name.”
“We are delighted to welcome Jerrell as the 2022 Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellow, and are extremely excited that he will be partnering with Free Street Theater, which for more than 50 years has been at the forefront of creating affordable, inclusive, and innovative theater in communities across Chicago,” said Melinda McMullen and Duncan Kime in a joint statement. “The project Jerrell and Free Street proposed is creative, ambitious and compelling; we look forward to seeing the results of their partnership.”
Ashley Honore Roberson is a theatre artist and educator who was Sam Roberson’s wife and served as one of the five panelists for the Fellowship application process. “Once again this year, it was exciting to see all the talent Chicago artists have to offer through the submitted applications. I know that this project in particular is one that Sam would have wanted to work on, and if he couldn’t, then he would have done what he could to help get it to the stage. I’m certain he would have been a champion of Jerrell’s work and would be proud to see him receive this fellowship in his honor.”
About Jerrell L. Henderson
Jerrell L. Henderson is a Theatre Director and Puppeteer. Recent directing credits include Mlima’s Tale with Griffin Theatre (Jeff Award Nomination for Direction and Best Play) and Thurgood with Walnut Street Theatre. Other credits include The River with BoHo Theatre and Untitled with Inis Nua (Barrymore Award nomination for Outstanding Direction of a Play). His latest spectacle creation, Ancestral Procession, was featured in this year’s International Physical Theatre Festival at Nichols Park on Chicago’s South Side. Recent puppet films include a short film version of his signature puppetry piece, I Am The Bear with Chicago International Puppet Theatre Festival. He will perform I Am The Bear live with ChiPuppets’ Living Room Tours during the Winter 2022 Chicago International Puppet Festival. Other Puppet Short Films include Hamlin: La Revue Sombre with Handmade Puppet Dreams and Diamond’s Dream with Chicago Children’s Theatre. His Juneteenth Puppet Protest: The Welcome Table was featured in the New York Times (June 2020) and his Fall 2020 puppetry celebration of the lives of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian titled Black Butterfly was later expanded into an educational performance piece with Tria Smith of Guild Row and a student collective working with Urban Growers Collective also on Chicago’s South Side. His shadow play, 3 American Myths: A Riff in Shadow & Light in 3 Rhythmic Movements was a finalist for a 2019 Jim Henson Foundation Grant.
As an assistant director, Jerrell has worked with The Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, and Lookingglass Theatre. He received an MFA in Directing from Northwestern University, is a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab (2012), an Artistic Associate of Black Lives, Black Words, and a Henson Foundation sponsored participant at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Puppetry Conference (2020). Most recently, Jerrell serves as the creator and curator of black_theatre_vinyl_archive on Instagram. black_theatre_vinyl_archive is an extensive online archive of African/Afro-European/African American theatre and musical theatre history. For more information: http://www.jerrell-henderson.com/
About Free Street Theatre
Free Street has spent the past 50 years working to make theater that challenges our city’s racial and economic segregation. We believe that theater matters, and if it matters, we should find ways to make it accessible and inviting to as many people as possible.
Free Street is a multiracial and multigenerational theater company with a focus on original performance that explores the issues impacting our city and a strong commitment to economic accessibility. We offer all of our shows for free/pay-what-you-can, and we try to make theater accessible for families with small children by offering free co-programming for children during rehearsals and shows. Whenever possible (and it is almost always possible!), we close caption our shows. We offer free classes, trainings, and make space available to artists developing new work. https://freestreet.org/
About The Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship
The Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship funds a residency for early to mid-career Black theatre artists based in Chicago for a one-year partnership with a Chicago area theatre. Each year, the Fellowship will be focused on a particular area of concentration in Theatre Arts. The focus of the 2021 Samuel G. Roberson Jr Resident Fellowship Award was playwriting and this year’s award will be given to a director.
The artist and host theatre recipients will work together toward a public performance of a play, performance piece, or other performance endeavor. Each year, an artist will be awarded $20,000 for participation in the program. The host theatre will be awarded $7,500 for its support of the artist. Priority is given to host theatres that have a stated mission to produce work by Black or BIPOC artists.
About Samuel G. Roberson Jr.
After graduating from Howard University’s Theatre Arts Department in 2005, Samuel G. Roberson Jr. began his theatre career with an apprenticeship at The Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis, where he spent three years defining his desires for acting, writing, directing, and social justice theater. During this time, he began writing and using his artistry to draw attention to issues important to him. He successfully wrote and produced two plays, And They Said I Wouldn’t Make It: A story of Hope, an autobiographical one man show about his fight with cancer as a child. And Same Difference, a 2 man show that deals with black male identity, and the pressures one experiences to act, sound and look a certain way in order to fit in to society.
After his success in Minneapolis, Sam made the move to Chicago where he continued pushing boundaries within the arts and within himself. Through his work with several prominent Chicago Theatres, including Steppenwolf, The Goodman, Northlight, Victory Gardens, Writers Theatre and Congo Square, as well as Spike Lee’s film, Chiraq, Sam made a name for himself not just as an artist but as an activist and leader within the theatre community. In addition to continuing to produce and perform his one-man show, Sam also founded the Make Me A Match Project (M3P), a non-profit organization focused on raising awareness about the need for bone marrow donors within the African American community. Through his efforts with M3P, he helped register donors that resulted in bone marrow matches.
In 2013 he was elected the Artistic Director of Congo Square Theatre. Under his leadership, Congo Square presented the world premiere and subsequent remount of Kelvin Roston’s award winning and Jeff-nominated Twisted Melodies, both productions directed by Sam. He created Congo Square’s signature conversation series, Owning Our Worth, which has hosted culturally specific theater leaders of color in public dialogue for talks on issues relevant to the theatre community at-large. He felt very strongly that it was his duty as an influential member of the community to advocate for more diverse work and casting throughout the Chicago Theatre scene. He also helped bring together a cohort of artists to create Chicago Artists Against Injustice using his artistry as a way to start difficult conversations around issues that often divide us. Wanting to spread his work to Chicago’s youth, Sam founded Congo Square’s Education program, Y-BOOM (Young Brothers Owning Our Mission), a literacy-based leadership program that provides a safe environment for adolescent African American men. It was his work with Y-BOOM that garnered the attention of the 3Arts organization who awarded him a 3Arts award for service and leadership as an artist in his community.
For all of Sam’s accomplishments and contributions, there was much more that he had hoped to achieve before succumbing to pneumonia in 2017. But he lived everyday he was given to his fullest, and gave all that he could of himself in hopes of inspiring others to do the same. When asked once, “What wakes you up in the morning?,” he responded, “Knowing that at some point in my day, I am going to have a positive impact on someone, somewhere.” We are most pleased to honor such a beloved, brave and committed truth teller through the Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship.
The McMullen & Kime Charitable Trust
Melinda McMullen and Duncan Kime serve as advisers to the McMullen and Kime Charitable Trust. They have been involved in Chicago theater for two decades. McMullen has served on the boards of Congo Square and Lookingglass Theatre Company, and the Trust has been particularly active in supporting the work of Black artists, including HeLa at Sideshow Theater, Thaddeus and Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure and most recently Her Honor Jane Byrne, both of which were produced at Lookingglass Theatre Company.