When COVID-19 shuttered the more than 200 theaters that make up Cook County’s burgeoning stage ecosystem, Berwyn-based actor Tiffany Addison was among thousands who suddenly found themselves in a field hit even harder than the restaurant industry. One cannot, after all, fit theater into takeout containers.
But artists are by definition a creative lot, and Addison’s latest work is a prime example. Faced with numerous obstacles, Addison went to work on a new project with Chicago’s groundbreaking Congo Square Theatre.
Through March 6, you can catch Addison in season one of Congo Square Theatre’s streaming comedy series “Hit ’Em on the Blackside.” The series was created by Anthony Irons, who also writes and directs many of the sketches in the 35-minute first episode.
It’s always unfair to compare one person’s work to another, but if you like August Wilson, Dorothy Parker or Wanda Sykes, you should give “Hit ’Em on the Blackside’’ (HOTB, for short) a look-see.
“Congo Square is a group of elite individuals who have paved the way for so many of us in so many ways,” Addison said. “But what I didn’t fully realize was how funny they could be.”
Founded in 1999, Congo Square, named for the infamous slave auction center once located in the center of New Orleans, is the only theater in the history of Chicago theater to count two-time Pulitzer winner August Wilson (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Fences”) among its most avid vocal champions. Until his death in 2005, the iconic playwright was a staple at Congo Square openings. He gets a shoutout in HOTB’s “One Minute Wilson,” an animated sketch that riffs on some of his best-known works.
All eight of the sketches in the 35-minute episode rely on comedy, science and scathingly satirical dialogue to explore a wealth of inconvenient and appalling truths.
Front and center, HOTB explores the impact and absurdities of racism. Take, for example, the traffic report on the HOTB News sketch. “There’s still a major crash on Common Sense waiting to be cleaned up in Ferguson, Louisville, Atlanta, Chicago, as well as Detroit and Fruitvale Station. Construction has finally begun on the Emmet Till Near 55. If you have to go back through there, expect long delays on Accountability.”
“Comedy has always been a way to push knowledge and insight through laughter,” Addison said. “Laughter gives us all common ground, makes us put our guard a little down. It can make you see things maybe you wouldn’t otherwise. I think it was a genius idea to take situations that are really relevant today and find a way to make people laugh but also make them think.”
Case in point: Claire, a sketch in which Addison plays a psychic whose powers of divination only work when she’s soaking in a lavender-salt-infused bubble bath. A floating head in a pastel shower cap, Claire fields queries from two brothers worried about their elderly parent. Should they call the police to do a wellness check? When the punchline arrives, it is infiltrated by the inescapable context of real-life headlines, a hard-hitting example of comedy that has far more on its mind than getting guffaws.
Reopening Schools, written by Ronald Conner, takes a similar tack, mashing laugh-out-loud funny with undeniably alarming real-world implications. Addison plays a teacher in a Zoom meeting with parents and administrators. The mom demands to know why the teacher is “so obsessed with death.” Addison’s character points out both the obvious and the ignorance: “Because. People. Have. Died.” Cut to the principal, who doesn’t seem to know he’s still on camera.
When the second episode drops in March, it will feature Addison’s writing as well as her acting.
Addison wasn’t a theater kid. The Chicago native spent years working in the corporate world, mostly in human resources and recruiting before walking away “to become a model of all things,” she said.
“I think when you’re younger, sometimes you’re a little more fearless than you are later. I was like, ‘I’m going to send out this mass mailing of material and try my luck, be a model,’ ’' she said. “I had no ideas about acting at all. But when I started doing auditions for modeling, that got me exposed to auditions for commercials. And as it turned out, one of the first things I booked was a speaking role in ‘Barbershop 2.’ I had never even been on a set before. That opened my eyes to more possibilities.”
In Los Angeles, Addison followed “Barbershop 2: Back in Business” with modeling gigs and movies including “The Break-Up” and “Batman vs. Superman.” She made her Chicago stage debut in 2003, when the Chicago Theatre Company brought its production “Cut Flowers” to the Noble Fool theater space, then located in the Loop. The production won a 2003 Black Theatre Alliance Award in the coveted Best Ensemble category.
Since then, Addison has worked with many of the Off-Loop theater scene’s most valuable, enduring players, as well as newer companies, revitalizing the landscape by upending the status quo, from “The Wiz” at the cavernous Arie Crown to “Genesis” at the intimate Definition Theatre. Her screen career continues with roles on “Empire” and “Chicago P.D.,” as well as a stint as lottery host for WGN-TV.
Right before the pandemic, Addison hit a major milestone. She got a grant from Anointed Harvesters to start production on her short film, “Perfect Timing.” The shoot is on hold. She’s rolling with the changes.
“My career has shifted and changed in some ways, and it’s unfortunately true that sometimes doing what you love can’t sustain you financially,” she said. “I’m grateful for all the corporate work I did because it made me a better businesswoman, and you need that in this industry.
“When folks see you on television, they think you’ve made it. But the reality of it is it’s just the one moment. And when that moment is over, you’ve got to create the next one.”
As a filmmaker, Addison has a history of creating those moments, time and again. She’s the author/producer of the 2018 feature “Nothing Like Thanksgiving” and the short film “Road to Freedom,” which doesn’t yet have distribution.
Her advice to aspiring artists of all disciplines?
“It’s important to be the owner of your property. If you own the rights, you are in a position of power, and you’re able to sit at the table when there are decisions made about your work, your property,” she said.
It’s also important to celebrate your work and your life, she said.
“It’s easy to be so caught up in the moment, you forget to celebrate yourself,” she said. “But you’ve got to do it.”
“Hit ’Em on the Blackside” streams for free through March 6 at Congo Square Theatre. Visit www.congosquaretheatre.org/hotb.