There are shows you come across that you have to allow to marinate in your mind, soul, and heart. That is what happened to me when I saw “being chaka,” a play that dealt with a young Black high school student from the ghetto suddenly finding himself in a private, mainly white high school, and having to decide whether his story brings with it the baggage of slavery and the pain from his father’s death, or whether he can decide on his own future based on who he is as an individual, learning the lessons from his heritage.
This work was very involved and engaging to behold. It was created by Chuk Obasi, Vieve Radha Price, Nalini Sharma, Talya Mar, and Tara Amber—who is also one of the writers, along with Obasi and Sharma, and stars in the production. It was developed by TEA Artistry and produced by TEA Artistry and Mieka Stan.
Presented by the New Ohio Theatre at 154 Christopher Street, “being chaka” truly shared the feelings and dilemma that not only Black students face trying to find their identity, but other minority groups in this country as well. If a student was born and raised here, but their family is from another place, is their history American history?
To help students at the high school feel comfortable, teachers were asked to hold groups with the minority students and groups with the white students for the youth to talk about the racism they felt exists in this country and their experiences with it. The groups made a safe place for the minority students, while the white students were made to feel uncomfortable. This caused Caroline, one of the more vocal, rich, white mothers, to take issue with the project and protest through a letter to the New York Times.
As Chaka explored his roots, he was able to connect with a Black couple who had an infant who had become ill and died. The rich white woman had purchased the crib of that infant some time ago and now decided to donate it to the private school for auctioning off as a fundraiser for the school. That made Chaka furious and he set out on a mission to get the baby bed. This young man felt outraged that this Black baby’s bed was just a possession to this rich white woman, who could never realize the importance of this small piece of furniture.
Kaheim Rivera delivered Chaka with depth and layers. The questions at hand included: How does he define who he is? Does being himself mean being his authentic self or does it mean assimilating with the white people in his environment? You could feel this young man’s confusion, anger, frustration, and determination to right what he felt was a wrong against the ancestors.
Tara Amber as Kunzang was amusing, at times poignant and candid about her views on the racism that was part of U.S. culture and the culture at the high school.
Colin DePaula played Ethan and Annie Hartkemeyer played his sister Maddy, the two children of Caroline, the rich white mother played by Joey Brenneman. This character’s racism was consistently blatant.
Miriam Tabb was memorable as Inaya, Chaka’s mother. She was moving as she tried to console her son over his father’s death, but also let him know that he could be his own man.
Joy Kelly played Annalisa, the Black history teacher who led the groups with the minority students. Chuck Montgomery played Gunnar, the white gym teacher, who led the groups with the white students, trying to get them to see things from the sides of the minority students, but without much success.
LaWanda Hopkins played Purilla and Jae Jackson played Willy, the Black couple whose baby had died and who connected with Chaka to share their story and grief. Hopkins and Jackson delivered stunning performances that showed a deep love for and dedication to their child, and their uncontrollable grief when not only did their baby die, but no white doctor would even attempt to come over and look at the baby.
The play had powerful direction by Vieve Radha Price and Chuk Obasi. It is very interesting to have the creatives of a show play so many multiple roles, as happened with this production. It also succeeds in delivering a consistency to its storyline.