Spotlight on: EmpowerYouth!’s 2020/21 Artist Mentors

EmpowerYouth!, Lyric’s partnership with the Chicago Urban League that was launched in 2017, is back for its fourth year, and we couldn’t be more excited to collaborate with a host of multidisciplinary artists who will serve as mentors to this season’s ensemble.

Artist mentors will meet virtually in weekly sessions with participants, introducing principles of performance, the written word, music, and dance, and teaching how these skills translate to everyday life. Their work will span eight months, and will culminate in the creation of an original performance that tells the story of the ensemble’s lives as young, Black Chicagoans.

Kristiana Rae Colón

Kristiana Rae Colón is a Chicago-based poet, playwright, actor, educator, Cave Canem Fellow, and executive director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective. She returns to EmpowerYouth! for the second year as librettist. Theatergoers will be familiar with Colón as a widely produced playwright. Her work includes Tilikum (Sideshow Theatre Company), Octagon (Jackalope Theatre Company), florissant & canfield (Goodman Theatre, University of Illinois, Chicago), and Good Friday (Oracle Theatre). 

Describing the sensorial impact of Kristiana Rae Colón’s work is like trying to express the experience of being struck by lightning. You can break it down to its elements, reassemble it for purposes of diagrams and analysis but good luck getting that fire into a jar.

Kevin Greene, New City Stage 

As a poet, Colón is often featured at the Poetry Foundation. She is the author of chapbooks pieces of shedu (2008) and promised instruments (2013), which won the inaugural Drinking Gourd Poetry Prize. Her poems have been included in Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2010 and the anthologies Not a Muse: The Inner Lives of Women, a World Poetry Anthology (2009) and Chorus: A Literary (Re)Mixtape (2012).

Jacob Watson

Jacob Watson returns to EmpowerYouth! for a second year as program facilitator. Watson creates the weekly sessions, supports the artist mentors, and facilitates work with social-emotional learning, group dynamics, and youth development.

Watson is a socially engaged artist, researcher, and educator. He is a founding member of the FYI Performance Company at the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health and an organizer for Swarm Artist Residency. He has created performances with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Redmoon, Theatre Unspeakable, Piven Theatre Workshop, Chicago Home Theatre Festival, and Erasing the Distance. He has also been a researcher at Project Zero and a program manager for interdisciplinary learning initiatives at Columbia College Chicago. He currently works as a consultant and coach specializing in learning and community engagement through a justice lens.

Watson’s work has been supported by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events and the Faber Residency in Olot, Spain. He earned his Ed.M. in Arts in Education from Harvard University and B.A. in Theatre from Northwestern University.

Shawn Wallace

Composer Shawn Wallace teaches record production and theater tech in Chicago schools. His experience as a musician and composer ranges from gospel to jazz to hip-hop and includes several independent film scores. As a keyboardist, he has worked with many artists, including Common, Ice Cube, Bobby Brown, Estelle, and Erykah Badu. He is also the Music Director and Composer for Storycatchers Theatre.  He earned his degree in music theory and composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Tanji Harper

Tanji Harper returns for her fourth year of EmpowerYouth! as an artist mentor. In addition to being a trained dancer and youth mentor, she is artistic director of The Happiness Club, a nonprofit organization dedicated to positively influencing through the arts, to guiding them in making sound decisions and in helping them become role models in their communities. She is also the director of the HiDef Dance Ensemble, and founder and executive director of Blu Rhythm Chicago. Blu Rhythm was one of three organizations that partnered with Lyric to produce community created performances as part of Lyric's Chicago Voices initiative during the 2017/18 Season.

The work that I do benefits the city most because young creatives are our future and I’m very grounded and centered in helping young people. Dance is just the conduit that I use to do it. It’s gone way beyond me teaching dance, I don’t think of it that way anymore. I know that I’ve grown as a mentor. It turned out that I was investing in young people and who they were becoming, and who they would be as adults and how they would represent this city and themselves.

Tanji Harper in an interview with Vocalo radio

Osiris Khepera

Osiris Khepera joins Lyric for the first time as an artist mentor for the 2020/21 EmpowerYouth! ensemble. Khepera is a Chicago-bred Black Queer playwright, poet, actor, teaching artist, and activist. He was named one of the inaugural Russ Tutterow Playwriting Fellows at Chicago Dramatists Theatre, and his most recent plays have appeared in the CIRCLE UP! Reading Series with Jackalope Theatre Company and the Chicago Inclusion Project, National Black Theatre’s I AM SOUL Reading series, the Chicago Theatre Marathon Festival, the MOJOAA Reclamation Festival, and with Greatworks Children’s Theatre Company. In June 2020, Khepera was named to Timeline Theatre’s Playwright’s Collective, which he will be a part of through January 2022.

His acting credits include Bootycandy (Windy City Playhouse), Rutherford’s Travels (Pegasus Players), Bars & Measures (PROP THTR), R.E.A.C.H. (The Second City), and The American Revolution (Theater Unspeakable and Lincoln Center). 

Emorja Roberson

Also new to the team this season is Emorja Roberson. Roberson is a pianist, conductor, composer, arranger, and vocalist, specializing in classical and gospel music. As a recording artist his works include “The Evening Musicale,” “He’ll Be With You,” “Shine Bright,” and “Seek Ye First.” He is a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, and is the first African-American student in the Doctor of Musical Arts program to study Choral Conducting with a focus in African-American repertoire.

He'll Be With You" by Emorja Roberson

Listen toEmpowerYouth! artistic mentor Emorja Roberson's composition "He'll Be With You." 

Photos: Kyle Flubacker, Justin Goh, Vocalo Radio