This Note from the Field spotlights the culturally significant yet risky undertaking by a university-based midsized regional cultural presenter to stage a large-scale world premiere of Red Summer, a play composed by three respected Chicago-based artists that explores the persistent themes of racism and violence in our communities. While its topic was timely, the new work's production on campus presented a number of challenges, including COVID restrictions, the lack of institutional traditions for producing world premieres, and inconsistent student attendance. Therefore, while Red Summer was billed as both a return to live theatre at the Center for Performing Arts (CPA) at Governors State University (GSU) and a cultural relevant and transformative experience, it was also a chance to pilot artistic literacy, defined as "the knowledge and understanding required to participate authentically in the arts" to introduce live theatre to first-year students ("National Core Arts Standards" 17).

As coauthors (Debbie, professor of media studies and former director of the Center for Community Media, 2020-22, and Lana, former executive director of the CPA, 2012-23), we have worked together over the past decade to create curriculum connections between the CPA and the academic programs in the Division of Arts and Letters (DAL). This partnership resulted in multiple collaborations each academic year between faculty and the CPA to develop curricula to engage students with the performing arts to varying degrees of success in terms of student participation or curriculum fit. Red Summer brought together theatre, community, campus, and faculty to engage new audiences in one theatrical event.

Vision and Audience

Written for practitioner audiences including campus-based theatre presenters-producers and educators who are grappling with the shift away from live theatre attendance and the decrease in funding post-COVID-19 (Paulson), the following explores how Red Summer was conceived and why the decisions were made in producing the project while manifesting the CPA's vision to "create experiences and memories that activate compassion and transform the world" and meet the revenue-generating goals of the institution ("Mission"). While this Note is contextually specific to the CPA, the framework of relationships, mission, resources, and institutional practices delineated herein can be adapted to different organizations.

Piloting a New Strategic Framework by Realigning Resources

The CPA's mix of strategies were deployed to increase in-person audiences at a time of persistent soft ticket sales, to take a social justice approach in engaging audiences and funders through artistic literacy rather than strictly focusing on live theatre as entertainment, and to explore the potential of serving as both a regional presenter and producer. The CPA-produced presentation of Red Summer offered an opportunity to build awareness of the historical event and the experience of live theatre by applying artistic literacy. Within this framework, we were able to connect campus and community through panel discussions and short excerpts from the play and to develop curriculum connections with First Year Seminar, a required course for all incoming first-year students. The staging of Red Summeralso resulted in an understanding of and a new willingness for a presenting organization to produce shows. Setting the performance in the historical context, this Note explores the importance of relationships to ensure buy-in, the role of procurement, and the practice of artistic literacy. We also share lessons learned and reflect on the challenges of producing a world premiere as a return to live performances amid the national downward trends facing regional theatres (Paulson; Paulson and Hernández) and COVID ambiguity (Bernadska and Rogachevskaya).

Historical Context

"Red Summer" refers to the race riots that took place during the Chicago in 1919 and the events leading up to the violence. It had been hot, with no rain for a month, and tensions ran high throughout the city. The Great Migration had brought thousands of Black families fleeing Southern terrorism and Jim Crow laws and seeking jobs at northern factories during World War I. Now that the war was over, decommissioned soldiers—both Black and white—were home and looking for work, just as factories were experiencing a postwar slow-down. Labor relations were tense, and a transit strike was looming. Street gangs of every nationality guarded their neighborhoods, often with violence (Red Summer; Jones).

On July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams and three friends went for a swim in Lake Michigan, launching their homemade wooden raft from the one beach in Chicago where Black beachgoers could enjoy the lake. Eugene and his friends drifted on the raft within a stone's throw from the white beach at 29th Street—and indeed, George Stauber, a white man, began throwing stones at the teens. One hit Eugene in the forehead, and he slipped under the water. His friends swam to shore to alert a lifeguard, but it was too late—Eugene had drowned. The white policeman on scene refused to arrest Stauber and instead took a Black man into custody. As the officer argued with a Black policeman over the unjustified arrest, crowds of Black and white beachgoers assembled, growing angrier and angrier. Soon, bricks and rocks were flying, followed shortly by bullets. The race riots had begun, and they would last eight days, leaving thirty-eight dead (twenty-three Black, fifteen white), over five hundred injured (60% Black), and more than one thousand Black families homeless after whites torched their residences (Red Summer; Jones).

Project Summary

In the context of a pandemic, Black Lives Matter, the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, and the anniversary of this little-known historical event, it was the belief of the artists and the CPA that a reason that racial conflict continues to erupt in Chicago (and in every other urban metropolis in the US) is because we choose to bury our history rather than examine and talk about it in a public forum. Red Summer was created to introduce new audiences to the 1919 riot and to provide safe and supported environments for public discussion. To that end, this work was timely and vital to the residents of the greater Chicago area. Written by Ma'at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre (MPAACT) artistic director Reginald ("Reggie") Lawrence (pen name Shepsu Aakhu) in partnership with Andrew ("Andy") White, Tony Award-winning founder of Lookingglass Theatre, the production included twenty-five actors, musicians, and dancers.The project took place over two years and premiered in September 2022, with five public performances, one matinee for high school students, community conversations, and educational resources. However, the origins of Red Summer began much earlier and as a result of the long-time creative relationship between Reggie and Andy. 

Fig 1. "Looking for Work." (Photo: Farfalla Designs.)

In 2017, Reggie and Andy began cowriting Red Summer in response to our country's continued racial divisions that persistently simmer and are too often ignored and that eventually boiled over in 2020, mirroring the events of the summer of 1919 (Roberts). As a Black playwright, Reggie's works chronicle a Black perspective of growing up in Chicago. As a white and Jewish playwright, Andy also puts race relations at the heart of his writing. Red Summer appealed to both for the same reasons, and the project offered an opportunity to work together creatively and address an issue they both cared about deeply. They invited Chicago musician Shawn Wallace, music director and composer of Chicago's transformative Storycatchers Theatre, to join as the music director and composer. Red Summer emerged from their mutual admiration, friendship, and over sixty collective years in the Chicago theatre scene. MPAACT served as the producing entity, managing all creative and production elements from conception to its first concert read-through. They invited Chicago friends and collaborators to experience this live staging, proudly promoting the work as it reached its first significant milestone. Lana was among the fifty or so guests gathered to witness the new concept reading at one of the workshop labs at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in July 2019. Lana found their raw and unapologetic storytelling authentic and appealing.

Procurement with a Purpose

Red Summer fit with the CPA's mission and vision in which curation of each season is rooted in artistic intent, partnering with artists with whom the CPA had developed long-term relationships and/or who had deep connections to their communities and audiences. Fortified by CPA's commitment to social justice and supporting artists through the difficult COVID years, Lana wrote grants to support the new work. She negotiated a contract with MPAACT ("How to Design an Agile Contract"), which enabled Reggie and his partners to develop an original musical performance.

Unlike a traditional contract in which vendors might be penalized for not fulfilling the terms, Lana's negotiation focused on the scope of project deliverables and flexibility, understanding not only the needs of our partners—MPAACT—but also their obligations to artists, their reputation, and vulnerabilities. In retrospect, the process we instinctively navigated was consistent with the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP)'s Building Ethical and Equitable Partnerships in the Performing arts (BEEP) framework established by APAP Equitable Partnership Working Group and with what Harvard Business Review calls a relationship contract that specifies mutual goals (Frydlinger, Hart, and Vitasek). Building on the foundation of trust, we established a partnership mentality with a shared vision and desired outcomes. Only then did the focus shift to managing resources and aligning expectations. Choosing to prioritize artists' contributions and protect their remuneration at all costs was one of the first steps that rooted the work as Lana and Reggie considered alternatives to invoking force majeure. The CPA and MPAACT, in consultation with GSU legal counsel, agreed on a settlement formula that could be activated at any moment to achieve equitable distribution of resources, honoring artists' commitments first before those of each partner.

Producing the Show

While national presenters were already cutting performances in the 2022-23 season, Lana and Reggie chose to offer five performances—a significant increase from the practice of scheduling one to three performances—to help bring this work to life. The sixth scheduled performance functioned as a preview or workshop week. While Reggie was focused on the production, Lana focused on creating awareness through artistic literacy initiatives, and the CPA team focused on ticket sales and telling the story of the work and how this premiere would feel, look, and sound. It was challenging to do so without having seen the show or having access to promotion assets on time. Red Summer promotional materials were being created as the show was being conceived, written, and the cast was finalized. The fluid production schedule meant that production photos were taken while putting the show on sale. High cast turnover, due to COVID complications and illness, resulted in constant press release rewrites and promotional photo reshoots. The production incurred unexpected expenses beyond the budgeted contingency, which could not be paid without additional fundraising. Given the added pressures of producing a new and unproven work, positioning it as a return to live theatre, and creating campus and community events, Red Summer became a temporary answer, a justification for prioritizing the weighty responsibility of delivering a successful world premiere. When the production closed, the staff team acknowledged the toll this undertaking took on the team and on the status of other projects.

Artistic Literacy

While the CPA is committed to continuing conversations on complex subjects, it recognized the necessity of artistic literacy to help campus and community members learn, relate, and find meaning in this story. As a result, the engagement team launched plans to develop Red Summer-related activities and resources to usher audiences into the play and its historical time. The committee focused on multipurpose objectives: generating excitement about the work, revealing the creative process, educating, and giving students opportunities to participate as an ensemble or audience members. This collaboration resulted in a rich collection of resources, campus and community engagement and participation, and increased awareness about a significant historical event in Chicago.

Curated Educational Resources

The CPA team collected, produced, and curated resources collaboratively with the MPAACT artistic team and partners, including the Chicago History Museum and DuSable Museum. Reggie and Andy compiled the Red Summer Curriculum Connection Guide and Dramaturgical Packet, a guide that provides historical background on the key elements that came together on that hot summer day in 1919, leading to the death of Eugene Williams, which sparked a week-long riot on Chicago streets. The following is a sample of resources curated for the Red Summer page (Red SummerEducational Resources). The complete list of resources is posted here:

Chicago History Museum:

Public Media:

Opening Up a Dialogue, Meaning-Making

Red Summer: Beyond Conversation, a behind-the-scenes discussion, was held in March 2022. It was essential to introduce audiences to the show themes and to build awareness among campus and community leaders in order to boost ticket sales. Most importantly, Beyond Conversation provided audiences with content. It was designed to appeal artistically and intellectually. Audience members were invited to meet the creative team of Red Summer and watch a staged scene and musical number. Audience members then participated in a conversation with playwrights Reggie and Andy, composer Shawn Wallace, Chicago History Museum's Erica Griffin, and GSU's Social Justice Initiative Director Phyllis West. Moderated by award-winning journalist and CPA Board Member Sylvia Ewing, and accompanied by visuals provided by the Chicago History Museum archive, the panel traced the riots' personal, social, and economic legacy.

After a Q & A session, organizers invited the audience to continue the conversation, connect, and reflect while breaking bread. The CPA contracted the grassroots consulting services of the Covey Group to create a customized reflective dialogue training for ten facilitators. These volunteer facilitators were drawn from students, alumni, board members, and faculty associated with the Center for Community Media (CCM) and the Social Justice Initiative and who demonstrated a commitment to social justice in practice. Utilizing these trained facilitators as well as scholars (at each table) to moderate this gathering, participants listened, expressed their views, and asked questions to better understand existing inequities and their impact on their community.

Additional opportunities for the audience participation included an episode of the podcast Southland Health and Wellness Hour, "Being Human: The Power of Storytelling," which turned the spotlight on Chicago area storytellers who were in attendance or who were recommended during the roundtable discussion. A second podcast, RED SUMMER: A Conversation with the Playwrights, hosted by Lana, produced by Debbie for the CCM, and recorded weeks before the premiere, served as promotion and documentation of the making of Red Summer.

Artistic Literacy in Action: Campus Engagement

The preview night supported campus engagement by offering discounted student tickets. In addition, DAL sponsored faculty and additional student tickets. Engagement was broad across disciplines, including representation from undergraduate courses such as First Year Seminar, Theatre Appreciation, English, Psychology Special Topics: Trauma and Recovery, Public Discourse, Dance, Cultural Anthropology, African American Art Studies, Political Communication, History, Restorative Justice in Schools, and Rhetoric of Social Movements. A total of 265 (22%) DAL students attended along with ten faculty (Spektrix Ticketing Report).

Fig 2. "The New Negro." (Photo: Lane Cameron.)

Despite our distribution of educational resources, free pre-show events, and faculty engagement, student audiences were unprepared to process this work. Some college students did not have either the historical knowledge to engage with the challenging subject matter and racially charged language (including racial slurs and the N-word) or the theatre-going experience of sitting through a three-hour performance. Some reactions were disruptive or inappropriate: talking during the show—possibly to mask their discomfort—and clapping or laughing in moments of racial violence. During the preview night, with a large campus attendance, two college students exited through an emergency door. The fire alarm went off, and the theatre was evacuated in the last five minutes before the curtain.

Given these reactions to the performance, we solicited feedback. Faculty indicated that despite the wealth of resources, many did not fully prepare their students for Red Summer or how to attend a live performance. Yet, there was ample positive feedback. A GSU First Year Seminar professor, who prepared her students with readings and viewings from the Resources and class discussion, commended Red Summer as a significant and immersive learning experience, especially in understanding Chicago history and why the city remains racially and socially segregated. Post-show surveys, while not scientific, indicated that students had limited experience attending live performances but appreciated learning about this time in history and felt that it was a worthwhile use of their time.

Lessons Learned

Obtaining buy-in is an exercise of tracing the organization's ecosystem of mission and relationships (institutional, artists, and audiences), and actors willing to draw on their resources toward a common goal. Essential components of soliciting the GSU administration's buy-in included prior history with MPAACT, artistic intent, and a track record of successful grant funding by the CPA team to minimize institutional risk and ensure sustainability. MPAACT (Reggie) used deeply rooted Chicago connections to secure substantial in-kind support. It helped build the courage to "put our money where our mouth is." This approach was supported by a focus on more intentional space creation for inclusion and belonging, where diverse artists and audiences can create experiences and memories.

Prioritizing relationship-based contracts for equity and sustainability of the artist partners. To enter into an equitable contractual agreement with a theatre much smaller than GSU while honoring their resources required keen awareness of the power dynamic and much more flexibility and collaborative spirit. The world premiere staging of Red Summer was made possible with an institutional partnership between Governors State University's Center for Performing Arts and Ma'at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre (MPAACT).

Build a large contingency into the budget to cover the unknowns of producing a new show. Ten percent contingency—an "insurance" against unexpected costs—covered only minor disruptions. The CPA failed to fully anticipate the potential additional costs of producing new full-scale work. In short, it relied on funds not yet awarded or raised to subsidize shortfalls beyond this contingency and did not promise anything to partners beyond the budget and continued fundraising. When additional contributed funding was awarded to the CPA, the team was grateful and relieved to direct it toward overtime labor production costs and to ease transportation challenges with a few extra hotel nights to keep the world premiere staging on track.

Safety before Talent = Safe Talent. Being intentional, direct, and disciplined about instituting and enforcing safety protocols contributed to a healthier environment and safety for all involved. While the CPA responded to mandated Illinois changes for patron gathering and staff, MPAACT hired a COVID compliance officer and mandated strict protocols with all activities involving cast and crew, from audition and rehearsals until the final performance. Signing an agreement to join the Red Summer team meant that an artist was willing to be vaccinated and compliant with whatever COVID protocols may be added.

It takes more than financial resources and a qualified infrastructure to produce new work. Plan, prepare, and invest in people infrastructure to mitigate burnout. Listen to and trust staff when they caution against the number of performances and question audience expectations. While the CPA accounted for hard costs, the team lacked resources to meet the physical and emotional toll the Red Summer marathon would take on its most important asset: its people. From the tech crew (on perpetual overtime) to marketing and front-of-house teams (scaling up to support six performances), to the arts-in-education director (getting ready to welcome the first post-COVID show), to the well-being of artists commuting to and from the venue, it was overwhelming. The team was stretched thin by the responsibility of the impending deadlines, living day-by-day in what was affectionately called the "Red Summer, Red Summer haze."

Artistic Literacy deployment requires dedicated staff and resources. From the onset, we recognized that artistic literacy—educating our communities to create meaningful connections (Artistic Literacy Institute)—was vital for this work to be understood, viewed, and consumed. Initially, we proposed an ambitious plan of twelve eclectic campus and community activities within eighteen months, culminating with the world premiere. Out of this list, we realized six. This work was demanding, and our lessons brought a drastically bittersweet mix of results.

It would have been strategic and financially advantageous to schedule a heavy social justice world premiere, with fewer public shows in the second half of the season, to allow for additional time for promotion and artistic literacy deployment. While August and September were optimal for production, they were not for promotional purposes. We failed to fully anticipate the triple threat of opening the season with new socially charged work as audience members slowly returned to the theatre post-COVID-19. As a result, the marketing campaigns yielded less than anticipated. 

Fig 3. "Eugene." Destin Lorde Teamer and Michaelyn Obey as Eugene. (Photo: Farfalla Designs.)

Marketing a work-in-progress. In retrospect, rather than emphasizing the world premiere as a fully realized production, emphasis on the evolving, workshop quality of a new production would have been more compelling and transparent. Centering the performance as a work-in-progress would have tempered audience expectations. Wins resulted from expanded reach and community partnerships and in cultivating new relationships with the press and media beyond the suburbs, positioning the CPA as a premier cultural destination that is not afraid to tackle uncomfortable subjects and produce socially relevant work.

Bringing new work to life is ambiguous and refining its "ready status" is limitless. As a presenting entity, the CPA is accustomed to hosting local, national, and international shows of all sizes. What unites all of them is the contractually defined nature that the CPA pays specific artist fees to support clearly outlined production needs, artist hospitality, and backline. In exchange, we receive an artistic product consistent with video promotions and a package of marketing materials to roll it out. The CPA's role as coproducers demanded constant acknowledgement and redefining obligations to fulfill this commitment. 


1. Reginald Lawrence, or "Reggie," as he is known by friends and close colleagues, has read and given his support of this piece.

Works Cited