Dancers during a reading from Crystal Phoenix Tyler’s “From Slavery to the White House.”

Black history told in 30 minutes for history month celebration

By Kate Morrissey

In just 30 minutes, a cast of readers provided a timeline of African-American history beginning with life in Africa, moving through slave trade and emancipation and culminating in the progress made by people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama.

The Illinois Department of Human Rights hosted readings Wednesday from a play “From Slavery to the White House,” written by Crystal Phoenix Tyler of Blue Sky Rhythm Productions, at the James R. Thompson Center in observation of black history month.

“It really emphasizes the pathways that the African-American community has made,” said Rocco J. Claps, the director of the Illinois Department of Human Rights. “When I speak to groups, I talk about the importance of the African-American community to all communities because it teaches us how to move forward.”

Claps said that since the department investigates discrimination claims, celebrating “special parts of our community” was a necessary part of the department’s programming.

stal Phoenix Tyler addresses the audience Wednesday before the start of the reading.
Crystal Phoenix Tyler addresses the audience Wednesday before the start of the reading. She explained that the readings are excerpts from her 2 hour 40 minute piece “From Slavery to the White House.” (Kate Morrissey/Medill)

About 50 people, mostly in their 40s or older, attended, and many sang along during the cast’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” a protest song popular during the civil rights movement. The crowd included Illinois Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-Chicago).

The reading closed with a question that resonated to cheers from the audience: “What can we do to make things better, or is having a black president enough?”

“I just love the honesty in the piece,” said Felicia Gibson, an attendee from Bucktown, who has seen the full show as well. “I do feel that we have a lost generation coming behind us, and I do want to do all I can to make them aware. This is you. This is your future. This is what you come from.”

The play itself, according to Tyler, began as a production for children and has expanded into two versions, one for students and one for adults. She said it incorporates song and dance and teaches about the details of African-American history that her father taught her. She said in both versions the play maintains an educational tone that pervaded the synopsis.

“When we celebrate each other and get to know each other, we can coexist better,” said Tyler, who changed careers from lawyer to playwright because, according to her, she didn’t feel like she was making a difference.

Claps said that this event was the only one the department planned for black history month, but that an event for women’s history month would be coming in March.

Photo at top: Cast members perform variations of African dance to open the reading from Crystal Phoenix Tyler’s “From Slavery to the White House.” (Kate Morrissey/Medill)