Breon Arzell and Daniel Kyri On Goals, Creating, Representation, and Self-Care

Breon Arzell and Daniel Kyri On Goals, Creating, Representation, and Self-Care

Pictured: Breon Arzell (Zaza Workolo) and Daniel Kyri (Shedrick Yarkpai) in Goodman’s OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR. Photo by Liz Lauren. 

By Kyle Whalen

Breon Arzell and Daniel Kyri are both making their Goodman Theatre debuts in Charles Smith’s Objects in the Mirror. Objects tells the story of Shedrick Yarkpai (played by Kyri), a Liberian refugee who eventually arrives in Australia. There, he began working as an actor, and met Charles Smith after being cast in a production of Smith’s Free Man of Color. Objects in the Mirror grew out of their conversations about Yarkpai’s journey.

Arzell has been seen all over Chicago, including several Hypocrites productions (All Our Tragic, You on the Moors Now, Johanna Faustus), Oracle Productions’ The Hairy Ape, Raven Theatre’s Direct from Death Row The Scottsboro Boys. He is also a celebrated choreographer. Kyri recently was seen in Monster at Steppenwolf, and in both parts of Chicago Shakespeare’s Tug of War.

I spoke with Arzell and Kyri (and Goodman’s wonderful media relations manager, Ramsey Carey, who listened in.) Conversing with these two talented men enriched me in a several ways. Revisiting their words, I was particularly drawn to Kyri’s comments about what it means to have “loyalty to the present,” how healing it is to celebrate the movement and existence of black and brown bodies, and Arzell’s stories about struggling through Philando Castile’s death, and about how taking care of yourself is one of your major responsibilities to other people.

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Breon Arzell

Does working on Objects in the Mirror feel like a good next step in the progression of your career? You’ve both been in excellent, high-profile, well-received productions leading up to this—

ARZELL: I feel like for me, it was the next step, as far as the progression of my career and what I want from it—this was definitely a huge advancement forward from smaller companies. And it’s just little things, it’s not necessarily the work or the work ethic or anything like that, it’s things like the budget, and resources, that are so drastically different, coming from a storefront theater that does public access free theater. You know, how that [public access theater] system is and how it’s created compared to the Goodman—conglomerate. They’re two totally opposite ends of the spectrum, you know what I’m saying? So, one of my fears doing a job here is: “Oh my God, I’m not going to want to go, I have to lock myself in the dressing room. I’m not going back there. I’m not. I’m not going back to wearing my own clothes for a show.” I don’t mean it as a knock to them, because you do what you have to do back in storefront theater—because you know the funds aren’t necessarily always there. You do what you have to do to create a beautiful show. And I will say I’ve been very lucky that I’ve done the previous shows—You on the Moors Now and Hairy Ape and Scottsboro Boys—like all of those shows were beautiful processes and the work was quality. Heart wrenching, meaty work. You know? It wasn’t fluff or anything like that, they were all beautifully done and they were artful and very…specific. Masterful. So, I’ve been very lucky to continue that frame because [Objects] is remarkable. It’s beautiful. It’s just a beautiful show. But it’s been a progression on the business side.

KYRI: That’s lit. [turning to me] So, I’m not 100 percent sure what your question meant.

I’m not, either. But Breon, you actually ended up talking about what I’d hoped you would, though I didn’t ask well. Do you feel like Objects in the Mirror is in line with the kind of work you want to do? Does that help?

KYRI: That does help, yes. You know the thing that’s been really, really interesting for me: I just like I feel like I looked up one day and I recognized this and realized this. Since I left school, I’ve been pretty much consistently doing only adaptations or new works. So, like the first thing that I did out of school was, I did the world premiere of a show called Look Away at TheaterSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas. And that was about this almost-lynching that had happened in the 1930s in that area of Arkansas. That’s a story that felt like it needed to be told. And the fact that it was being told in that area of Arkansas for me was profound. I think what has been a part of my own artistic journey is in recognizing my naivete. I feel like I stumble on things and then I’m like, “Wait, yeah, no. That’s a great idea.” I’m very fortunate to find myself in certain rooms.

Sure.

Daniel Kyri

KYRI: And so for awhile it kind of felt like things were like happening to me. And then from just sort of learning from those experiences in those situations it became something that was like a more active, like, “OK, this is a great story. I want to throw myself completely into that.” And so, you know, fast forward you’re doing the six hour [Tug of War with Chicago Shakespeare]. And I also feel like every project that I have been fortunate enough to work on. I’ve learned so much from like every project has been this extensive immersive masterclass. And I love the way that that feels because it feels like I never stop learning. And you know when you get to play and to share stages with fabulous actors like Larry Yando or Allen Gilmore or Lily Mojekwu and these folks who have such loyalty to the present and to the now and to the art. You can’t help but steal little things from them.

ARZELL: We absorb everything around us. We absorb everything that they do.

KYRI: Exactly.

ARZELL: We didn’t know about the cast list until they announced it to the world. And I was looking at it like: “Allen Gilmore is my dad. Allen Gilmore is my dad, guys! Are you kidding?” Because I just worship that man. I could watch him—I could watch him read the back of a cereal box. That man is amazing.

KYRI: He’s mesmerizing.

ARZELL: Especially doing this? Like, now seeing his process, too?

KYRI: You feel so lucky. You’re taking notes.

ARZELL: A behind the scenes special.

KYRI: It’s a masterclass, every single time. And having the opportunity to work on a play like Monster, you’re seeing this sort of adaptation process from book-formatted as a screenplay to an onstage production? So, so, so, so, so interesting. I gained so much perspective and respect for a part of the process that you don’t normally get to be a part of as an actor. The thematic core of that show—what it’s about is, essentially, a black boy in the prison-industrial complex.

Daniel Kyri (Shedrick Yarkpai) and Allen Gilmore in rehearsal. Photo by Liz Lauren.

 

Walter Dean Myers wrote it, right?

KYRI: Yeah.

I read it in middle school, I think.

KYRI: I feel like we all read it. [laughing] I mean I was like, “Wait, this can’t be the same Monster.” I mean, that was just so dope, and to recognize that: you’re on a stage in a respected theatrical institution, able to do what you love, but also able to talk about real stuff and important stuff happening now? There’s no better way to make art than that.

ARZELL: I feel like I’m in a place where I say no to things. Or, when I first got [to Chicago], every audition it was like, “Go, go, go!” Just for the experience, just to be seen. But now, I’m in a place where I look at something, and I’ll read it, or read the play, or read the book, and I’ll say: “Yeah. That’s not for me.” Or, “That’s not what I want to represent.” Or, if somebody offers something you’re like, “This just isn’t the type of show that I want to do,” or, “this isn’t in line with what I’m trying to do with my voice.” I know this especially in this particular climate that we’re currently living in.

KYRI: Yeah.

Yeah.

ARZELL: I’ve become a lot more selective and a lot more political in a lot of ways, about what shows I do and what voice I’m giving to [shows], because even if it’s a show that I like, it’s like, “What are you casting me as?” I’m not going to be that token black person. Or, I’m not going to be this character saying this, because I know I can’t say I’m behind it. Before, I would say yes to everything. But now I’m not. I’m being a lot more selective because I am discovering what I want my voice in my career voice to be used for.

KYRI: I think for me, that instinct that you develop when you are navigating auditions and the material that’s being passed your way—I have learned the thing about me is, it’s less a hyper-cognitive decision-making and more it’s just—

ARZELL: It’s not cerebral.

KYRI: Yeah, even if I go out for an audition for something, if it doesn’t affect me or doesn’t speak to me the way Objects in the Mirror does, or Monster does, I instinctively find myself not as free, not as open. There’s a connective tissue that happens when you find material that just fits. It feels right. And when you encounter [that type of material], you find yourself throwing yourself into it more and more and more. And those tend to be the roles that I book as an actor and performer.

Whether it’s a recent change or something you’ve always done: What do you think an actor’s responsibility to the community…like how can. Like how specifically…like how to be good—

KYRI: Like a good ally or voice or—?

Well, how do you conceive of your role as both a Chicagoan and an actor? Does that—

ARZELL: See, it’s tricky. As an actor in general, your sole job is to realize someone’s vision and be a vessel for that. And to work. That’s your goal: to work. And so you want to say yes to everything. And when you turn things around and say no, it’s like, “I’ll never work again!” It’s like a big drop in the pit of your stomach. But at the same time your heart is like: “No. This is the right thing, because you weren’t fully behind that.” And I think that’s important. You have a certain responsibility, too, because you determine what the narrative is or what the political voice is. You are a part of the movement—like, you are the revolution. Nothing will change if you aren’t on the right side of it, or if you’re just letting it just glaze over. Many people do that! And it’s no knock on them, that’s just—that’s their choice. I just realized that that’s not my choice. And I’ve come to realize that the shows that I patronize or the shows that I go see, I don’t go out, like—quite honestly, if I see a show that’s an all white cast, I’m like, “I’m good.” I’m not going to go watch it—because why? You know? Unless it’s specifically written that way for a very specific reason. Then, OK. Dope. This is what they’re doing. But if you whitewash a show? There’s no reason why there can’t be one person that’s not hetero and white. And so—it may not make a huge mark—because usually I’m paying the industry rate or getting a comp anyway [laughing]—but I feel like karmically, it makes a ripple. Because it is me taking my spirit and my voice out of it. I can’t support that.

I think that’s really smart. As a white guy theatermaker, there are times where I’ll be in a room with all or mostly white people who will suggest starting a company or producing a certain show. And then people arrive at the moment where they’re like, “Now, how do we make sure it’s diverse, representative?” We start from the top-down, when it seems like there’s a much earlier choice to be made about living a less homogenous life: am I attending shows that are specific about their voice? Am I supporting artists of color’s work? What friends am I making? So, I think that’s really cool that you say that about being specific as an audience member.

ARZELL: And I think—oh, we’re about to go down this rabbit hole. I feel like it goes so much deeper, too, because we can only do what we can do, right? And that’s why even as of late I’m more on the other side of the table. I’ve been doing a lot of choreography stuff, because the change happens with those people. I can be an actor going for jobs any day. But, if there aren’t the right people on the other side of the table to take a chance and cast me, then it’s all to no avail. So that’s why I’ve been trying to integrate myself more on the other side to be a voice of change. That’s why I love working so closely with Sean Graney, because he addressed—like, two years ago, he totally flipped the game and was like: “You know what? This season”—he straight up said—“I don’t want more than two straight white people in my shows this year. I want it to be a representation of the world we live in. We need different voices. We need to stop hearing from the same people and the same perspectives.” It’s all the more I can do that I might be a part of that [new] voice and be a part of that change. I think it will just cause ripples. There’s that responsibility, like this is where we come in on the journey in the revolution, in the progression. Because the people that were before us, that fought for us to even be seen, they’ve done their job. Now it’s our chance, now that we are being seen, to be like, “OK, now this is a crack, I’m gonna come kick this door down, blow it wide open.” You know what I mean? It’s so disheartening when you see a show that could have been so good if you had a different voice or if it had a splash of spice or something else in it that just made it. It’s not just a race thing, it’s a voice thing. What does this show say?

KYRI: I think when we talk about it in context of Chicago Theater, the conversation that’s been dominating artistic processes of late has been this conversation of diversity and diversifying. A lot of times, it boils down to essentially nothing more than a buzzword, and that’s because we get tripped up thinking that visibility and representation are the same thing. And I don’t think that they necessarily are. Representation boils down to all levels of the artistic and creative process. It has to be more than what’s on the stage. Me being in an adaptation of like Romeo and Juliet—it’s visibility in a way that someone in the audience can see someone up on stage that looks like them. But where the representation comes in, it’s just a little bit deeper than that. It has more roots. I am sort of a part of underground music here in Chicago, and also painters—I have an underground art space that I run out of Pilsen. And encountering artists of color, Latinx artists, trans artists, all of those folks, I developed this mentality that being an artist and being an activist aren’t mutually exclusive things. I think a lot of the times they have to be the same thing, and to be an artist that’s on the pulse of things like forward-thinking and you know someone who who’s truly about their craft, you have to be talking about them, you have to stand for something, I think. Especially now. Especially when all of these things are happening outside of our that we feel are outside of our control. But there are ways in which we can exert control by saying, “Hey, let’s talk about this. Let’s be dialogue-seekers, in order to make change on these different levels.” I am focused on the intersection of the lines on which these things exist and where they cross over, where these things—

Lily Mojekwu and Daniel Kyri in OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR. Photo by Liz Lauren.

 

When you say “these things,” what—

KYRI: For instance, right now I am I’m in the process of writing and creating with Bea Cordelia. She’s a trans artist here in Chicago. She’s a writer. Brilliant speaker. Honestly she’s just brilliant as all get out. And she and I just filmed our project that we’re co-writing, producing, all this stuff. And it has the representation factor that I’m talking about—where [the project] exists on the intersection is that it’s a story about a trans white woman with a queer black man and a Latina trans woman. And in that one character of the Latina trans woman, you’re getting a person of color, a trans person, and a woman in a female-identifying story. That’s where our stories intersect. And that’s where we find the stories that need to be told: where issues intersect and overlap.

Do you feel your different artistic endeavors and roles and interests are compartmentalized or integrated? Daniel, I looked you up on Facebook—

ARZELL: [laughs]

KYRI: Oh?

—and saw pictures of you with the soul collective—

KYRI: So, I recently did a show at City Winery with the Chicago Soul Collective. We are a group of musicians and actors and comedians largely based here in Chicago. And—so, my first love actually is music. They were like, “We have this really great idea for a for a movie.” And the name of the movie is A Voice in the Dark and we will be filming at the end of the summer. And Samantha Bailey—who just had a huge success with her web series Brown Girls—she is in the process of co-writing with them. I’ve been working on the music element, so they’ve been my collaborators. And so, Chicago Soul Collective was born because we were like OK we need to create buzz for this and we need to get funding for it. The story is it’s about a queer black studio artist in the 1960s, played by moi. So, it does some of that [intersectionality] work as well because it talks about this fictional studio in that era of music-making and the community that came along with that. And what we want to try and put on a screen is this little bubble of a community of marginalized people who come together and created a lasting, powerful, healing space for a moment in time, and the importance of that community and building that community.

You’d also mentioned painters. What other kinds of artists are you connected with?

KYRI: So, the art space that I run out in Pilsen, it’s called the Dojo. It kind of started from a place of me and a bunch of folks that I run the space with getting out of school and being like, “OK, what do we do now with these art degrees?” I didn’t want it to just be about theater and actors, or just about musicians and singers, because I also had friends who were photographers, or cinematographers, or writers, or painters. So, we started curating these events that are interdisciplinary and multicultural. You walk in and there’s usually a gallery set up with different painters or artists or photography. We also have an installation room that we set up for installation artists. And then we usually have music, or comedy, or spoken word, or storytelling, or sometimes dance. I just think that—like I said: Art exists on an intersection. I think the best art is born out of collaboration. I mean because that’s what we do as theater artists and as activists.

I love that you both touch on the importance of what kind of art you support and consume, besides theater. Sometimes, I think I fall into the trap of forgetting there’s any art besides the type of art I make.

KYRI: The danger I feel like we all face—especially in Chicago, because segregation is such a huge issue in the city—and I’m from the South Side, born and raised, you know what I’m saying? It’s like a different world. It’s a different city. This Chicago that I navigate most of the time now is not the Chicago I grew up in. And so the trap that we fall into is building this thing around us that’s very homogenous. It doesn’t offer another world view. But once we allow ourselves to get to these other places where we can collaborate with other artists—these other mediums or platforms or whatever—there’s more texture. The world you’re trying to build gains more color, more perspective, because that artist tells a story in a completely different way from how you tell the story. The possibilities just kind of blossom from there and grow, like, infinitely bigger. So, I’ve always had that instinct [to work with other disciplines], because storytellers who approach the story from different perspectives or angles or backgrounds are only going to make the conversation better.

What work would you like to create in the future? Do you have any dream roles or projects?

ARZELL:I’m always thinking about the next thing. Since I was a kid, I was thinking about what’s next while I’m doing the current thing. Which is why I’m always doing six things at the same time. As far as dream projects go I want there to be—there are no sitcoms filmed in Chicago. There are dramas. Chicago’s a drama city. Why aren’t there any comedies here, or sitcoms? I mean, there used to be, in the 90s, there used to be real life comedies that were set in Chicago, like Family Matters and, like, little family shows and things like that. But there’s nothing [now]. And my dream is to be on a sitcom. It’s really strange. Before I came to Chicago I was a character actor, comedy guy. Since I’ve been in Chicago, it’s all dramatic roles. And I thought, “I gotta pick better audition pieces or something.”

KYRI: [laughs]

ARZELL: Like, I am a funny guy! I want to make people laugh! I’m good with dramatic—I love dramatic roles, because, I mean, that’s our therapy, right? That’s how I deal with the world. It’s primal. You release all that through someone else, a person you created. I want Alyson Hannigan’s career. This woman does not have to work another day in her life, because she had eight seasons with Buffy and then ten seasons with How I Met Your Mother, and they’re both in constant syndication internationally. She literally doesn’t have to do anything for the rest of her life. She’s been making people laugh for ten years. To me, that is amazing. You know? I want my Buffy. I want my How I Met Your Mother. My ideal life would be filming something during the day, and going to rehearsal that night, and that day, you know, popping in on the show that I choreographed or whatever. That’s the perfect world.

KYRI: That’s lit.

ARZELL: And why not?! I feel like I am training myself to do that, as well. And like I was telling you, I was working on six shows at the same time. I’ve been training myself to multitask. I’m ready for that moment when the sitcom comes.

KYRI: That’s what we in Chicago call “hustle.”

ARZELL: That’s Detroit hustle, honey.

KYRI: Well you know, I’m part Detroit.

ARZELL: That’s that Detroit—

KYRI: I know all about it.

ARZELL: Everyone in Detroit is working on, like, twelve different things.

KYRI: That’s every artist I know, though. All the musicians here [in Chicago], they don’t play.

ARZELL: You have to [hustle.] Because in the world today, we need it even more, because you’re feeling so much. All of these feelings that will be poured out of me in these different outlets. And if I didn’t have this in all those projects…I don’t know how Muggles made it through all of the shootings, the police shootings, because I, during all of that during that—I mean it’s been happening for a while. But during the big surge of—

Of visibility?

ARZELL: Yeah, of visibility. During the course of that, I was doing Scottsboro Boys. And I was doing Hairy Ape. And I was working on choreography for these things. And if I did not have those shows and those people that I was in those shows with—which were majority young black men—like, I don’t know how I would have made it through that time.

KYRI: I have to say—

ARZELL: You know what I mean?

KYRI: —that is very valuable, because I think that also when we talk about visibility versus representation or whatever. I mean it’s also, like, we have to protect our artists in some ways because the crazy thing is, being a black man in America right now, or any marginalized group, in this country, it’s being able to say, “I’m starring in a Goodman show on the Albert stage. But when I ride my bike home in Pilsen, I still get nervous whenever I pass a cop car.” That feeling doesn’t go away. And being in shows, or working on a project where you’re able to talk about it, or touch on those themes, or even find community and reprieve with other performers of color or whatever.

I’m starring in a Goodman show on the Albert stage. But when I ride my bike home in Pilsen, I still get nervous whenever I pass a cop car.

Breon: Like the night that Philando Castile [was killed.]

DK: It was traumatic.

Breon: It was during the remount of Hairy Ape. And I just—because I’m away from home to my I’m the only one that’s out here—all my family is in Detroit. And I’m thinking, when all these things are going on I’m thinking about my mom because I know that she’s worrying. And I’m her only son, too. When that happened—we all [the cast of Hairy Ape] had a group chat. And I said to them, “I need my brothers right now.” I just put that message out and we met at the theater at 5:30pm, like an hour before our call. Just sitting there. Not even talking a little bit. Just being with each other. Like, that was everything to me, because I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this show.” Especially with Monty’s vision of The Hairy Ape, what we actually tackled in that show. “How are we going to do the show tonight?” There’s a moment in the show where the lead character Hank, played by Julian Parker, he’s getting choked by a police officer. And I watch it as a pedestrian, and for a hot second on this a day, it took me out of it, because I was looking at him and I was like: he could actually be in this situation where he leaves this theater. You know what I mean? And I had to snap back out of it before I completely lost it. You know? And that’s what we need. Having that community there was everything. That’s what we need.

KYRI: Yes.

ARZELL: That’s how we deal. That’s how artists deal like that. That’s why we have to be able to be represented. We have to be able to tell the stories that we need to tell, [otherwise] you’re stifling a voice that needs to be heard.

KYRI: It’s all levels. Representation means that it affects all levels of the creative process. What you’re speaking to right now is just so real, because you know when [Philando Castile died], I was doing Tug of War at Chicago Shakes. And it was fabulous and wonderful and brilliant—the entire production was and is. And as much as I learned from it, my rock through that show ended up being Karen Aldridge—who is brilliant and lovely and wonderful—because she is going through the same things, or feeling the same things that I was. Finding that connection is what helped me keep going.

Breon Arzell, Daniel Kyri and Allen Gilmore in OBJECT IN THE MIRROR. Photo by Liz Lauren.

 

Yeah.

KYRI: Those things are important. We have to protect our community in Chicago. And part of that service is done by adequate representation on our stages. Period. You know?

ARZELL: Yeah, sorry I don’t know. I don’t mean to take us, but here it is.

KYRI: Yeah. That stuff is hard. And I didn’t want to see the video, but the way that the Internet works now, stuff like that is so hard to avoid. And I was alone when that happened, and it was traumatic. It was absolutely traumatic. I’m saying I couldn’t sleep. And finding that community on stage or during the rehearsal process is vastly helpful you know? I don’t think I ever answered your question because it got really real.

ARZELL: Hashtag “goals?”

KYRI: [laughs] I can answer or that or if you want to [continue], I’m chill.

Well, I mean I’d like to hear that too. But you both lead me to think: are there other ways besides community (if you can even compartmentalize that), that you recharge? Like, I read books. Things like that. Do you like to be alone, sit at a beach—? To maintain artistic health?

KYRI: It depends. I need different things at different times. I am an avid reader and love books. I spent the majority of my childhood like in a book. Best time of my life. [They laugh] But I love reading new things. My homie Alex Weisman, he always sends me book recommendations, so that’s helpful.

He always has those Facebook posts, about like, Murakami.

KYRI: He’s always on top of it! [Kyri claps with each syllable for emphasis.] He’s always on top of it! But. For me, the thing that I go through to recharge is music.

Sure.

KYRI: Creating music, writing music, having jam sessions, drum circles, you know? Also, the work that I do with the Dojo is a recharge, because I have a space to help facilitate other artists and see how they’re approaching conversation and dialogue. And I get so much inspiration from seeing how folks navigate an event or art show that is centered around the positive representation of bodies of color, and seeing how that plays out in different ways. It’s so healing. More healing than you could possibly imagine. Being able to see black and brown bodies moving in space in a celebratory manner is that recharge, because it does feel like community. Those are the ways that I recuperate, when I need to just take a deep breath and just watch something or see something or experience something, that’s how I do it.

Yeah.

ARZELL: [after a pause] Baking.

KYRI: OK!

ARZELL: Is probably mine. I love cooking, baking, creating. Like just Monday night after Wiz closed and I had the family, I call it. I call them “the immediate family.” But we had a family dinner. I got some of my close friends and they came over and we just had dinner. When they came over I was, like, in the kitchen frying chicken [he begins to mime rhythmically moving a frying pan over a stove] like my mom or something like somebody’s auntie, my hair wrapped, calling like, “Get you a plate!” [DK and Ramsey laugh.] Straight up. Straight up. And everybody came. I just smiled. Everyone said “I just followed the smell of chicken to your door.” Because we’re on the ground floor and the window was open. “I literally just followed the smell of fried chicken from the street all the way up to where your apartment is,” and I was like, “Hm. Well, there you go. Plates over there.” That’s just what I do. It’s one of those things that I just do because, I mean—my sister…my older sister and I used to…that’s funny, I’m just now realizing, in this moment: my sister and I used to bake a cake, like all the time whenever we were like upset or we would have extra time. We would go to the store or go to the corner store get like a mix of like Duncan Hines or whatever. Just straight up just bake like a thirteen by nine sheet cake together.

KYRI: [laughing] Yes!

ARZELL: And then usually eat it that same night. [laughs] Me and my older sister, we would always do that. It’s just funny that I’m just now realizing that I cook and bake now, when things are a little off. Because I don’t follow recipes. I cook by smell, how it feels and smells. I don’t really do, like, measurements.

KYRI: So real. That’s so real.

ARZELL: I feel like, I’ll see the recipe, what goes in something, and be like, “OK, cool.” Well I might try get consistencies. And solitude [is a way I recharge.] Because I feel like it’s actually not only as an actor but as my personality, I’m always on, you know what I mean? Like no matter where I am, on stage or off, like I feel like I’m always on because I’m always having to make someone feel comfortable or pleased or like entertain my guests just I was just who I am. I actually discovered this when I was on tour because it was like four of us on tour always around each other. Eat, drink, slept, did shows, traveled – everything together. So I started taking one day a week. That was Sunday which was usually that we didn’t have to like change locations or anything. I just told my group, “OK. On every Sunday, I’m not going to talk. I’m not going to talk to you. Please don’t talk to me. It’s not anything personal, it’s just I just need a day to decompress. To reset and reboot.” Like, I didn’t go on Facebook. I didn’t look at anything social media-wise. I just watched like five movies, or listen to a complete album or discography of one artist. It was just about being with me. Because people who come from larger families, we forget about ourselves, we forget about self-care, since we’re always aiming to please somebody else. And people may think it’s selfish, but it’s like, “No, it’s OK to take the time for you, because if you don’t, you’re no good to anybody.” [Kyri snaps.] Don’t give seventy percent of yourself because you’re tired or you give seventy percent because your mind is thinking about five different things. Give them 100 percent of you—and the only way you can do that is by taking the time for you, to take care of you. So sit, go in your room, close the door, drink chamomile and just stare at the wall if you want to. But if that’s what you need to do, do it. And there’s nothing wrong with that, you don’t need to feel bad about that. The world will keep spinning. The issues will be right there when you open that door.

KYRI: Right where you left them. Right where you left them.

ARZELL: Nothing’s going to change. The world is not going to implode in just 24 hours or even 12 hours as you do this. Take the time for you. When I started doing that it was like it was a game changer. I realized that being on tour in a foreign country—my energy was different, because, when you’re always on, you start to resent—to bottle things up. And so I noticed before I was doing it, I would always carry a little something with me during the day. If somebody did something the other day, it was in the back of my mind. But once I started taking that break to just go, everything was fresh, there wasn’t any baggage with me. It was truly a reboot. That’s mine. That’s my recharge. Just being completely selfish one day or for a chunk of time, just self-care.

KYRI: Hashtag “self-care Sunday.”

Now I’m reflecting on my own choices, like—

KYRI: [laughs]

ARZELL: Because you get lost! Because in this hustle life that we have, it’s about always moving, but. But whenever I have a day off and people were like, “Oh, what are you doing all day?” Like, nothing. I’m sitting. I’m literally not leaving my room. They’re like, “What? Are you going to waste your day off?” You know six days out of the week, I’m always moving. On this here seventh day? I’m doing nothing.

If God rested, then I—

ARZELL: I am doing nothing. Because my life is ripping and running. I don’t need to run errands, because I’m running errands when I’m going from one rehearsal to the next. I stop off and get groceries, or I’m off to do this. I’m not doing it on my day off. I’m taking the time for me and doing nothing.

Daniel Kyri in OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR. Photo by Liz Lauren.

 

Before you have to go to call, Daniel, do you want to talk about “hashtag goals,” since we skipped?

KYRI: I do think that I want to travel for work at some point. I’ve lived and operated out of Chicago my whole life since I was a shorty on the south side. [Ramsey Carey silently cheers.]

Where on the south side are you from?

KYRI: I grew up on 67th and East End, which is just east of Stony Island by Jeffrey where it turns into Lake Shore Drive over there. A very interesting neighborhood to grow up in. Actually, [to Ramsey] where are you from?

CAREY: The south side. Washington Park.

KYRI: Washington Park. Very interesting neighborhood—like, when I was younger, I would always take walks with my older sister, and you would start to see these really dope houses and these sprawling manors and stuff the more east you went. But then a few blocks west, that’s where I lived, it was—not that. You know what I’m saying? And that also gave me, I think, a little bit of perspective on Chicago. Because like I said earlier, going downtown when I was young? It felt like going to a different city. And so I think that a lot of my inclination when I talk about making art intersectional is about desegregating the way we live together. Desegregating the way that we view art. The way that we make art. Because so much of it is so compartmentalized, so cut off from the other. So all I want to do is I want to make. I want to seek dialogue with other people and I want to start to heal those rifts, the societal divides between us. A lot of the problems that we see bubbling up now are from the lack of understanding between, like, police and communities of color. There’s such a history of that. And it’s something that we feed into constantly and consistently. I think that division creates most, if not all, of our problems. I want to make work that breaks down those divides. And I think I found a way to do it.

Breon, did you also have any other final stuff you wanted to mention?

ARZELL: I kind of decided to lay off the choreography for a second. Which is strange.

KYRI: What?

ARZELL: I know, I know, I know. Only because I felt people started calling me for choreography when I kind of just want to be in the show. Chicago likes to pigeonhole people. Chicago likes to put people in categories. They go, “Oh, so you’re a choreographer” and it’s like, “No, I’m an actor first.” Lately, companies have called me in for interviews for choreographing a show and I’m like, “When did you have auditions to audition for this show? I would’ve loved to audition for this show!”  So, I’m trying to shortcut that and not be [only] a choreographer, so I might take a little break. Just because I want to concentrate more on film, on-camera stuff and making this Chicago comedy happen. And, also where I’m trying to put together, I want to do a live In Living Color experience, like the show, where it’s original comedic sketches, like a sketch comedy show. Because we haven’t had a show like that since that show. And I want to do these events where it’s one night only. I’m going to call it The Barbecue.

KYRI: That’s fabulous.

ARZELL: It’s because we’re always talking about how a person [in unison] “ain’t invited to the barbecue.”

KYRI: [in unison] “Ain’t invited to the barbecue!”

ARZELL: Patent pending Breon Arzell Jackson. Just in case anyone trying to steal it—I know you, Kyle, I know you got the recording. [everyone laughs] And that’s kind of like a project with primarily artists of color. And for it to be about things [other than race]. Of course, there will be some that are racially based—that’s who we are, we can’t avoid it. But that’s not all it is. One of the happiest times last year was being in You on the Moors Now, because I wasn’t playing a black character. I was just playing a character. I wasn’t black in that show. It was amazing because for once I can just be somebody, like I don’t have to carry the entire weight of my race and my history with me. I can just play and just be. So yeah, creating that type of experience I’m trying to be a part of letting artists just be artists. Just let me act. Just let me act. Yeah. Don’t tell me I can’t be in Anna Karenina. Why? Just, let me act. Don’t put a label or borders on what I can do.

Breon Arzell, Director Chuck Smith and Daniel Kyri in rehearsal. Photo by Liz Lauren.


Finally, what is one thing you’ve learned during the 
Objects process, and/or is there anything you hope audiences learn or take away from seeing it?

KYRI: The thing I have been meditating on a lot working on this story is the importance of recognizing the individual. So often, as a society, we paint things with broad brush strokes. Generalizing entire communities or issues to such a degree that we can no longer empathize with the humans involved. For example, in the news, a victim of police brutality may be described as a “thug” or “monster” or another moniker that connotes some unknowable trait that almost always equal inherent aggression or violence. This act strips a person of their individuality, their humanity. And it creates distance, a barrier between a largely unsympathetic public and, more often than not, the marginalized folks at the center of these narratives. We see this happening even in the national dialogue about Syrian refugees, undocumented peoples of the Latinx community, the Black Lives Matter movement (right wing media calling them “terrorists”) etc. The language we use to discuss these issues, often, creates distance from the people involved. I believe Objects does some work to address that. Because we see a refugee story through the lens of this complicated family, we are actively putting a face to the crisis. We focus on the individual, the living and breathing human beings at the center of the narrative. And by doing that we begin chipping away at the “us and them” narrative. The individual people and all of their triumphs and failures and heartaches and joyful moments and the very real pain and love between them is what we see and empathize with. I hope audiences will take some of that with them when they leave the theater. I am hopeful that this kind of representation has a ripple effect for anyone who views Objects in the Mirror. That we cannot un-see the humanity in these types of stories. That when we see these headlines or video clips in the media, we think of the individual people who have to survive these things and we are able, as a society, to find our empathy for each other again. This is where our power as theater artists lies. The process for mounting this production has intimately reacquainted me to this truth.”

ARZELL: It’s not so much that I learned it, but this process was definitely an affirmation of the power of simplicity. Sometimes all you need is to tell the story. And, not only do I want audiences to walk away with a greater understanding of what is going on in the world around us, and a deeper sense of humanity and compassion, but also this quote from Shedrick: “What good is my life, without me?”

OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR runs through June 4th. For more information visit goodmantheatre.org.

About author

Kyle Whalen

Kyle Whalen is a Chicago writer and theatremaker. He has written for PerformInk and Chicago Stage Standard. He is a company member of Commission Theatre Co. Follow him on Instagram/Twitter @whalenschmalen.

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