CHAMPAIGN – When director Rene Moreno first heard the writers and performers of "N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK" talking about their show on his car radio, he sat in his driveway and stayed there.
"I had to finish listening to them," said the visiting director from Dallas. Moreno was struck by the cast members' stories and how "they were talking about my life ... how race provides some opportunities, but also stops you at the door."
Here were three writers and actors using "hugely offensive" words – including a word he himself, a Mexican-American, had been called before. The way Moreno sees it, the cast is "taking these words and turning them on their head. ... It's about reclaiming words," he told a group of faculty, staff, students and community members Tuesday.
Moreno, at the University of Illinois to direct "Metamorphoses," joined the co-writers and performers of the production at the University YMCA to talk about issues raised in the play and discuss how the play came about. Cast members also performed some scenes for the audience.
In addition to Moreno, the panel included co-writers and performers Rafael Agustin, Miles Gregley and Allan Axibal, along with Steve Seagle, director and co-writer. (Fellow co-writer and director Liesel Reinhart was unable to attend.)
"This project ... is controversial," said Krannert Center for the Performing Arts Director Mike Ross before he introduced the performers Tuesday. "It deals with very complex stuff ... with stuff obviously highly problematic in our society." What is "doubly challenging" for the performers and writers is to work not only in humor but also to work with "deeply rooted social issues," Ross said.
The co-writers met several years ago at a California community college and later at UCLA. Agustin and Gregley, both involved in theater, found themselves auditioning for Shakespearean and Arthur Miller plays. Instead, Agustin found himself cast in a prison drama.
Agustin approached Seagle and said, "I want to write my own show."
And Seagle eventually told him, "Your life story is a lot more interesting than anything we can make up."
A club was formed, funding requests were made and, after lots of writing and acting sessions in living rooms, the play made its debut.
"It was very much a homegrown production," Seagle said.
What began as a student production at UCLA has turned into a national touring company. They've sold out theaters around the country and have attracted quite a bit of media attention, along with some protests about their approach to tackling issues of race and identity.
The show built its own momentum and "students realized it was not a message of hate, but unity," Seagle said.
As Axibal pointed out, they started as entertainers, "now we're activists. ... But it's a good thing."
The company motto? "Don't be boring," Seagle said. "We want people to leave with something."
Cast members have been staying at Allen Hall on campus this week and holding numerous discussions with students and community members. The show runs through Friday in the Krannert Center's Colwell Playhouse and discussions follow the shows.