Paramount Theatre in Aurora to launch Inception Project plays

Aurora’s Paramount Theatre will present a free virtual reading of “Pretended,” a new play about a Haitian adoptee in search of truth and identity, written and directed by Chicago actor, playwright and director Lanise Antoine Shelley, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14. It’s the first of two January offerings.

Tickets are free, but reservations are required. Reserve online at

“Pretended” is the first fresh work to be developed via Paramount’s Inception Project, a new works development initiative designed to support and amplify BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and marginalized voices while creating artist driven, courageous, thought-provoking new work in a radically inclusive environment, a news release stated.

“Pretended” is a dramatic comedy in which writer/director Shelley draws from her own life experience as a Haitian adoptee raised by a single white mother to dissect and debunk misconceptions around adoption and move audiences to a place of racial healing. Shelley achieves this with her story about Elly, an intercultural adoptee who finds herself pregnant and moving to Seattle to gain familial support. As told from the rare lens of an adoptee’s perspective, Elly and the audience are confronted with the definition of family and how we cannot always choose the route in which we love someone.

Paramount’s New Works Department is coordinating eight days of online rehearsals via Zoom. The cast includes Aneisa J. Hicks (Elly), Erik Hellman (Sean), Garrett Young (Clayton), Caron Buinis (Vicky) and Mildred Marie Langford (Juliana and Soo). The final reading will be recorded and presented on Jan. 14 as a free virtual event for Paramount subscribers, supporters, residents of the local community and the state of Illinois, and all theater professionals interested in new work.

The reading is followed by a live, interactive discussion in which Shelley and a panel of outside experts will reflect on the play and respond to audience questions. Panelists include Juliana Deans, who holds a doctorate in marriage and family therapy, and is an interracial adoptee who has reunified with biological family members; Melissa Guida-Richards, an adoptee, podcaster and author of the forthcoming book “What White People Should Know About Transracial Adoption”; Dr. Charmaine Borda, an Afro-Caribbean immigrant from Jamaica who survived abuse in and out of the foster care system; and Douglas Brown, whose family adopted three biological sisters from Perú 11 years ago.

About Lanise Antoine Shelley

“Pretended,” her first full-length play, was written during quarantine, spurred by the murder of George Floyd. Shelley is also the creator of the Interracial Adoptee Panel Series sponsored by the United States Foundation for the Children of Haiti. She hosts the podcast “When They Were Young: Amplifying Voices of Adoptees,” available on all major platforms including her website

As a writer, Shelley has worked this year with Chicago Children’s Theatre in its Springboard Initiative to develop her TYA show “Bread.” As an actress, she is known for “Chicago Fire,” “Empire,” “Chicago Med,” “Discovery World,” “Macbeth HD” and Goodman Theatre’s livestream of “School Girls: African Mean Girls.” Selected directing credits include: “Rastas and Hattie” (still streaming free this month at, “Black & Blue,” and movement consultant for “Muthaland” (16th Street Theater in Berwyn); “The Luck of the Irish” virtual reading, “Identity Lab” (Lookingglass Theatre); “Rumors” (DePaul University); and a staged reading of “The Convert” (Stratford Shakespeare Festival). She holds a BFA in Directing, Acting and Playwriting from Cornish College of the Arts, an MFA from ART/MXAT at Harvard University, and a certificate in Classical Theatre from both BADA in Oxford, England, and Birmingham Conservatory in Canada. Awards/Fellowships include Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Chicago Fellow 2016 and Victory Gardens Theatre’s Directing Fellow 2019. She will be directing “Goods” at Artemisia Theatre in 2021.

More about The Inception Project

Long known for its blockbuster stagings of popular Broadway musicals, Paramount Theatre also has begun to develop new works through its Broadway Series, including the world premiere musicals “August Rush” in 2019, and “The Secret of My Success” in 2020, the latter Jeff-nominated for Best New Work. Earlier this fall, Paramount School of the Arts also received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to commission and develop a new play for young audiences by a BIPOC writer to tour area high schools.

Paramount’s new Inception Project, supported by a $40,000 Healing Illinois grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services in partnership with The Chicago Community Trust, is part of a bold statewide initiative to address and heal harms caused by racism.

Second January production

In addition to “Pretended,” Healing Illinois is supporting the rehearsals, recording and Inception Project presentation of “Bull: a love story,” Chicago playwright Nancy García Loza’s very personal work about a young Mexican American man’s path to self-actualization. The reading, directed by Laura Alcalá Baker, will be presented virtually at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. Reserve at

The Inception Project is led by Amber Mak, Paramount New Works Development Director since 2016, and Paul-Jordan Jansen, Artistic Associate for The Inception Project. Jansen is familiar to Chicago theater audiences as the Jeff Award-winning actor in the title role of “Sweeney Todd,” as the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” and most recently as The Beast in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” all at the Paramount.

“As an organization that has been on pause from producing in-person shows, we have had a lot of time to reflect on our past and look toward the future as we focus on how to be a vehicle of change within the theater community to create more equitable, diverse and inclusive spaces,” Mak stated in the release. “We know this is just the beginning of work that will change the landscape of the American theater canon in an exciting and long overdue way and we are honored and thrilled for this opportunity.”

“The Healing Illinois Grant speaks of seeding connection, and that’s exactly what The Inception Project will do,” Jansen stated in the release. “It’s about opening our doors to voices we haven’t heard from yet, welcoming them to grow roots within our organization. With The Inception Project, we are making the commitment to foster and showcase stories written by BIPOC artists and other marginalized voices so that they continue to be written and produced. We are building relationships with the voices who will be the future of this industry, and we’re tremendously excited for this endeavor.”

Paramount intends to make The Inception Project an annual launch pad for future productions of new plays and musicals developed through the program, including potentially full, world-premiere stagings as part of the new BOLD Series that Paramount intends to launch in the 165-seat Copley Theatre, its newly renovated sister stage set along the Fox River in downtown Aurora.