The League of Chicago Theatres awards the 2023 Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship to Tonika Lewis Johnson and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

Chicago (March 23, 2023) – The League of Chicago Theatres has awarded the 2023 Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship to artist/activist Tonika Lewis Johnson and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble to collaborate on The Folded Map Project. The fellowship is funded by the McMullen & Kime Charitable Trust and administered by the League of Chicago Theatres.

The 2023 Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship is an annual grant awarded to a Black Theatre Artist to fund a residency or collaboration with a Chicago area non-profit organization. Johnson and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble will collaborate on an expansion of The Folded Map Project. The project visually connects residents who live at corresponding addresses on the North and South Sides of Chicago, aiming to further the understanding of how Chicago’s urban environment is structured.

Now in its third year, the Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship offers early to mid-career Black theater artists the opportunity to work with a Chicago-based non-profit organization in a supportive environment. The Fellowship provides the Artist with a grant of $20,000 and the Partner Organization receives $7,500 to support their work with the Artist. The fellowship is administered by the League of Chicago Theatres and funded by the McMullen & Kime Charitable Trust. Applications were reviewed by an external panel of Chicago directors, actors, playwrights and administrators.

Tonika Lewis Johnson’s art includes several mediums, always with the goal of building bridges between individuals who might not have otherwise met each other. The theatrical interpretation of her work with Rivendell will center on the psychological and social impact of segregation and racism in the city of Chicago. Story-gathering events with people from the north, west, and south sides of Chicago will bring people together to speak on the topics of racism and segregation. Personal stories will become the script, and these gatherings will also be opportunities for the storytellers to continue grappling with their place in these systems.

League of Chicago Theatres Executive Director Marissa Lynn Ford comments, “We are honored to administer this Fellowship, a generous gift from McMullen & Kime Charitable Trust, to support the work of Black theatre artists in honor of Sam Roberson, a respected teacher, actor, director, artistic director and champion of social justice theater. Sam was one of the first people I worked with when starting my career and I am honored to keep his legacy alive in this way. It is fitting to give the award to artist and activist Tonika Lewis Johnson. She creates art that serves as a catalyst for people having thoughtful and accessible conversations about large systemic issues. Through this partnership with Rivendell, we hope her work will make an even greater impact as she collects and shares stories of real Chicagoans in a theatrical way.”

“We are delighted to welcome Tonika as the third Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellow,” said Melinda McMullen and Duncan Kime in a joint statement. “This year’s grant in the Artivist category is reflective of our continued desire to help address gaps in funding for early and mid-career Black artists. Tonika’s proposal fit perfectly in the Artivist category, and we are particularly enthusiastic to see the results of her first-ever collaboration with a theater company.”

Tonika Lewis Johnson comments, “As a visual artist, I explore how segregation and racism are intended to prevent us from having potentially powerful relationships. I create work that serves as an accessible on-ramp for personal reflection and conversations about systemic change. Theater brings storytelling to life and will offer a new depth of experience to my work. I’m thrilled to be the recipient of the 2023 Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship. The fellowship will empower the next evolution of the Folded Map project and enable me to reach communities in a new way.”

Each year, the Fellowship is focused on a particular area of concentration in theatre arts. Previous recipients of the Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship are Kristiana Rae Colón (Playwright/2021), who worked with Congo Square Theatre to develop homan + fillmore, an afrofuturistic, hybrid-media work and community healing-focused work based on the 2016 Freedom Square encampment at Homan & Fillmore, and Jerrell L. Henderson (Director/2022), who will present AmericanMYTH: Crossroads, a new genre-defying historic reckoning with five performers mixing live theatre, shadow puppetry, lights, and immersive sound, currently scheduled to be staged at Free Street Theater in the Fall of 2023. This year, the application was open to Artivists – individuals who combine art with activism.

About Tonika Lewis Johnson

Tonika Lewis Johnson is a photographer/social justice artist and life-long resident of Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Englewood. She is also co-founder of two community-based organizations, Englewood Arts Collective and Resident Association of Greater Englewood, which mobilizes people and resources for positive change in Greater Englewood. Her multi-media project titled “Folded Map” illustrates Chicago’s residential segregation while bringing residents together to have a conversation and was exhibited at Loyola University’s Museum of Art in 2018. Since then, she has transformed this project into an advocacy and policy-influencing tool that invites audiences to open a dialogue and question how we are all socially impacted by racial and institutional conditions that segregate the city.

She recently formalized the Folded Map project into a non-profit organization where she serves as the Creative Executive Officer. She is also a member of the Cultural Advisory Council of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events by the Chicago City Council and was named one of the Field Foundations Leaders for a New Chicago in 2019. In 2021, she was selected to be the National Public Housing Museum’s 2021 Artist as Instigator to work on her next project “Inequity for Sale,” highlighting the living history of Greater Englewood homes sold on Land Sale Contracts in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most recently, she was named one of Landmark Illinois’ 2022 Influencers for her “Inequity for Sale,” project that encourages us to reevaluate and create positive change in real estate and land use practices, including historic preservation.

About Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble is Chicago’s leading theatre company dedicated to women’s stories and groundbreaking portrayals of provocative social themes through a female lens. Rivendell Theatre Ensemble elevates the lives of women through the power of theatre.

Rivendell cultivates a creative home for audiences and artists to explore untold women’s stories while fostering an environment in which women theatre artists can thrive. Rivendell lifts up all female voices, promotes female-focused work creation, broadens awareness with fresh insights and dialogue, and advocates for women.

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble was born of a specific need: women theatre artists are vastly underrepresented in American theatre. Audiences are offered season after season of stories skewed toward a male perspective and shaped by structural racism. Everyone is taught a false understanding of the past, the present, and their place in the world – feeding and perpetuating cycles of inequity and harm.

Rivendell is a professional theatre in Chicago that actively counters this imbalance. We believe…

  • Theatre offers a necessary platform for women whose stories have gone unheard and whose voices have long been silenced.
  • Authentic stories transform us. They build understanding, empathy, and connection across individuals of different backgrounds and experiences.
  • The work of women is both essential and undervalued.
  • Women’s voices drive change. Our perspectives demand respect and a fundamental place in the world conversation.
  • Embracing equity, diversity, and inclusion forges a path toward a just society.
  • A family-friendly culture enables artists to do their best work.
  • When we are united, we are unstoppable.

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 artist and partner organization 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 partner organization will be awarded $7,500 for its support of the artist.

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.

About Chicago theatre

Chicago theatre is the leader in the U.S. with more than 250 theatres throughout Chicagoland, comprising a rich and varied community ranging from storefront, non-union theatres to the most renowned resident theatres in the country, including six which have been honored with Regional Tony Awards, and the largest touring Broadway organization in the nation. Chicago’s theatres serve 5 million audience members annually and have a combined budget of more than $250 million. Chicago produces and/or presents more world premieres annually than any other city in the nation. Each year Chicago theatres send new work to resident theatres across the country, to Broadway, and around the world. For more information, visit

The League of Chicago Theatres’ Mission Statement

Theatre is essential to the life of a great city and to its citizens. The League of Chicago Theatres is an alliance of theatres, which leverages its collective strength to support, promote and advocate for Chicago’s theatre industry. Through our work, we ensure that theatre continues to thrive in our city.