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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

'Panther Women' by Coalescence Theatre shines a light on the women behind the movement

A grid with seven headshots, the Coalescence log and a promotion for Panther Women
Erin Barnard
Photography by Erin B
The cast of Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation includes Illinois State University students affiliated with the Black Artists League, recent graduates and area professionals.

Theater director and Baton Rouge native Myesha-Tiara weathered the pandemic in Chicago. Her company, Perceptions Theatre, launched five years ago with a mission to strengthen theater accessibility on Chicago’s South Side and provide economic and artistic resources for BIPOC artists. Tiara spent three years working on a Jeff Award-nominated co-production of India Nicole Burton’s Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation with Prop Thtr.

What followed has been a nonstop flow of accolades and favorable reviews. But this self-described troubadour can’t stay in one place too long, so Myesha-Tiara jumped at the chance to stage Panther Women in the Twin Cities when Coalescence Theatre Project artistic director Don Shandrow pitched it.

“I was like, I have no idea where that is, but let’s talk about it,” Tiara said in an interview with WGLT.

After a few meetings and sign-off from the show’s playwright, Panther Women was a “go” for the Twin Cities with Tiara in the director’s chair.

The production runs April 18-28 at First Christian Church in Bloomington.

Rather than bring the play as is, Tiara cast Panther Women from the local talent pool. In partnership with the Black Artists League at Illinois State University, the play's seven roles encompass a wide variety of student actors and local professionals.

“It’s been a really interesting experience,” Tiara said. “I have a mixed bag of actors. So, it’s being able to understand how each person works and then find a way we can all work together cohesively so they can get what they need out of it and I can get what I need as a director.”

What she needs, Tiara said, is to be transported to another world. Perceptions’ Panther Women was particularly lauded for its immersive setting, staged in tight quarters with audience members on opposing sides of a converted office space on Chicago's South Side renamed The Davis. Coalescence's production takes place in First Christian Church’s rec area.

“That space is much bigger than the Davis space we turned into a dilapidated Black Panther office,” Tiara said. “We’re going to cut the room off by creating walls, enclosing everyone in. You can put [the play] in any found space you like, as long as you work with it and not against it.”

The audience will similarly be seated on two sides of the re-imagined long, narrow space, bringing guests up close and personal with Panther Women’s performers. Protagonist Journey [played by Aurora Thorpe] travels through time to encounter three women key to the Black Panther movement: Elaine Brown [Autumn Nicole], Angela Davis [Aneesah Jemei] and Assata Shakur [Jajwanica Brockington]. Nicole, Jemei and Brockington oscillate between these household names and others — a nod to the unnamed trailblazers [here, cast as “Woman 1” through “Woman 6”] whose names did not often circulate in the media at the height of the Black Panthers' influence.

One goal of Panther Women is to not just highlight the movement, but the “complete and whole person” behind each activist who participated. In some instances, that includes acknowledging nuances of the movement regarding women's participation.

“I think sometimes people want to see only one side of a group and they don’t see the fact that it’s a layered group," Tiara said. "The Black Panthers did a lot of great things: food services, helping of children, the breakfast programs, being their own version of an emergency vehicle to get people to and from the hospital, literacy — all those great things.”

But sexism and patriarchy were rampant in the movement. Brown stepped down as chair when founder Huey P. Newton refused to condemn the beating of Panther Liberation school administrator Regina Davis by other party members when she reprimanded a male coworker.

“There was sexism. There was misogyny, where these women were seen as less-than depending on which Black Panther man you were dealing with that day,” Tiara said, “even though a lot of the women were the ones coming up with the really great ideas for programs.”

The shoulders we stand on

When Journey enters an abandoned, dilapidated Black Panther office, she’s feeling downtrodden and worthless.

“She’s kind of just over it and wants to end it all,” Tiara said. “When she cries out to her ancestors for some guidance, these six women come out of nowhere.”

The ancestors show Journey it’s OK to be mad. It’s OK to be happy. It’s OK to be confused and not know where to go or what to do “because these women that came before you all experienced this already,” Tiara said.

It’s a message this inter-generational cast can take away, too, in going on their own journeys with Panther Women.

“A big thing for them is getting that confidence, and going, oh man, I can do it!” Tiara said. “They may have felt as if they weren’t seen. This is a show where all six of them — seven including Journey — have an opportunity to have moments where they’re highlighted and everyone’s looking at them. They’re experiencing their own form of self-love and self-discovery.”

Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation runs April 18-25 at First Christian Church, 401 W. Jefferson St., Bloomington. Tickets are $15 or pay-what-you-can at ShowTix4U.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.