Get Out Alive | Steppenwolf LookOut Series, February 2nd, 2020
(Originally published on Chicago Stage Standard)
Mental health is not easy to talk about sometimes, let alone the vulnerability to talk about your own personal journey in front of a bunch of strangers. Art can help heal unseen wounds and Nikki Lynette’s Get Out Alive is an experience that may even help some of your own.
As a part of Steppenwolf’s LookOut Series, Get Out Alive is a new autobiographical musical by independent artist, actor and activist Nikki Lynette. This afrogoth musical is equal parts raucous, tender, intelligent and triumphant. Using storytelling, song, dance, visual media and a live DJ, Lynette’s offbeat approach to sharing her personal mental health journey shows that even when life leads us to a bad place, we can always make it out alive.
Written and performed by Lynette, she recounts her personal journey marked by abuse, grief, sexual assault and suicide, Lynette raised mental health awareness through the lens of an afrogoth/hip hop concert. The performance is directed and choreographed by Roger Ellis with associate director Rebecca Blaich. Ellis’s choreography for this production really highlights the stress and violently passionate feelings one can experience through trauma. It’s evocative movement with the two versions of Lynette pantomiming internal feelings and flashbacks help with the organic storytelling approach this production takes. I will not give this performance a star count for the consideration that the degree of separation between art and personal journey is so closely intertwined. Don’t mistake me though because I will RAVE! about this to anyone that will listen, but these topics are not to be measured or to the degree in which they are talked about. I want to express where this production soared and how elegantly the production team and Lynette worked to make a statement on the stage.
This performance is a testament to the combined desire of active movement transcending from the 2D plane into the 3D. Chris Owens design and some of Lynette’s own work are projected onto the upstage wall as a visual aide to the story Lynette is telling. The set and prop design by Megan Chaney also makes a creative mind in spatial manifestation. The space use is wide and not restricting for any portion of the performance. Flowers, scattered newspapers and orange medical pill bottles are littered throughout part of the set. There is an emphasis on symbols and the opportunity to explore the stage before you without any limitations. It takes full advantage in the ability to find relief in the mosaic chaos. White oleanders create a center lane to an art easel, to the left a makeshift grave site and the right a messy floor with cat food and pill bottles piled everywhere. This middle ground where art reigns and color is explored is a peace and solace.
While the audience is visually enticed, the soul in the performance is through music. Upon entering the space, DJ P1 mixes masterfully empowering uptempo soul to lo-fi grunge Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. He utilizes Chopin’s funeral march as a transition melody between this varied music. Brilliant! The pertinent attention to the auditory experience sets the pace for what is in store for the rest of the evening. Lynette performs songs throughout the piece sometimes with wonderfully scored backing tracks and occasionally a capella. The audience is embraced as an active listener and the safe space within the confines of these walls the conversation is ripped open through melody and color.
The cast includes Keeley Morris and Natalie Renee Savoy who are Lynette’s two echoes. The two extreme sides to her personality that she internally struggles with through the performance. They are chapters in her journey and the color palette excellently portrays this. I cannot even begin to sing their praises on how talented each of them are- from the complex high intensity choreography to the expressive story telling pantomimes. They compliment and fill out the overall performance and really should be applauded for their incredible talent!
The trio of women have their hair worn naturally with colored dye. Lynette as the third combined version of herself with her flowing dreads and purple the perfect mixture of this blue cold hard version of herself and the red loving soft side of herself. The costume, hair, and makeup design by Ziare Paul-Emile is wonderfully executed. The dark aesthetic holds down the weight of the piece. Every detail in costume down to the back of Lynette’s boots where the word love is written on the seam multiple times is even an implication at the need to walk through life with love, as cheesy as that sounds.
The first songs from Get Out Alive were performed in 2018, when Lynette opened for Russian feminist protest punk rock group Pussy Riot. The full piece was later work shopped in a developmental reading produced by the American Music Theatre Project (AMTP) at Northwestern University in May 2019. Lynette was the first black woman to have her work developed and produced by AMTP. Produced by Ira Antelis, David H. Bell and Brannon Bowers with additional production support from the Vanguard Arts Collective.
A Chicago native, she fuses mental health activism into her performances and has created a lane for her music that is uniquely her own. Her music has been featured in popular shows on Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, Fox and MTV. Since her return to the public eye, she has written articles about mental health, depression and suicide for prominent black publications, and is currently working on the mental health documentary Happy Songs About Unhappy Things—the inspired product of Lynette’s sit-down with renowned director Spike Lee. I had the honor to ask Lynette a few questions in regards to the upcoming performances at Steppenwolf…
Could you talk a little about how you got started for this project and the process or approach you had in constructing this work?
Honestly, I wrote it right at the end of my recovery from being suicidal. I had just gotten to a place where I had accepted that I have a mental illness and wanted to live a good life in spite of that. Ira Antelis told me to write a play about my experience, and at the time he was saying it just to get me back creating, to keep me in a good headspace. It took me longer than planned to write it, because I’ve never written a play before. I got asked by Pussy Riot to open for the first 3 dates of their tour and when I did, I kinda workshopped my idea for the play onstage. Ira came and saw it and loved it… he told em to finish writing it… and the rest is history.
With your personal journey and hearing so many other people’s journeys, when creating this production did you feel any intimidation for Get Out Alive to “get it right”? Do you think many artists run into the fear of “getting it right”?
Fortunately, I did not feel a need to get it right because it’s literally a story about my recovery from being suicidal and how I have managed to lived with a mental illness. I have PTSD, so I relive tough things that happened to me almost daily. The play helps me process it because it gives my flashbacks and triggers context. I think the pressure artists put on themselves comes from them being nervous about how their work will be perceived. I can’t really care about that as much, not if I wanna stay healthy.
Congratulations on becoming the first black woman to have their work developed and produced by the American Music Theatre Project! Thinking back, do you feel the creative industry has changed in the amount of female representation since your career started? Do you think there is a stronger female voice? A stronger black female voice?
There are definitely more unapologetic female voices now than there was when I started out in the game. And it is inspiring. I see fewer limitations for myself. And I absolutely feel that being a black woman right now, at this time in history, is actually a strength when it comes to the variety of perspectives we are able to contribute to traditionally male spaces.
What advice would you give any artists out there that may be struggling to find their voice in telling their own personal stories?
Our stories matter. We are each unique and the things that make you YOU are where you need to be creating from. You can’t let the fact that your lane doesn’t exist yet stop you from creating it for yourself. That can make all the difference between having a moment of success as an artist and having an entire career.
The complex relationships and difficulties in abuse, relationships, depression and all the rest can be extremely hard and Lynette expresses these feelings in a raw endearing unrelenting way. I truly commend her on her honesty, vulnerability and poignant impactful message of hope. You are not alone and that there is always opportunity to get out alive. The themes are not for the faint of heart, but it is surrounded by such relatable content that our society has told us is taboo to talk about. Where this production soars is speaking outwardly and honestly about mental health that hopefully shifts some perspectives and creates more empathy, which our world desperately needs. The more we nurture personal stories and creative outlets, the more people will benefit from hearing that they truly are not alone in what they feel.
If you missed this run of GET OUT ALIVE, word through the grapevine is that it might be coming back to stage soon. Keep an eye out and follow Nikki Lynette on social media to find out the latest in regards to this project and all the great partner work she is doing.
For more information about Steppenwolf’s LookOut Series, please visit https://www.steppenwolf.org/tickets–events/lookout/
For more information about the play, please visit http://nikkilynette.com/the-play
To learn more about Rebecca’s Dream and their work towards promoting awareness and compassionate understanding of depression and bipolar disorder as real diseases, please visit http://www.rebeccasdream.org/
If you are struggling with any of the issues talked about in this article and feel you need someone to talk with, reach out to a parent, friend, or call a local helpline. You are not alone. It’s okay not to be okay.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
DIAL: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)
Press 1 for Veterans Line
The Trevor Project LGBT Lifeline
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)
National Domestic Violence Hotline
National Child Abuse Hotline