BY SHARNITA MIDGETT Like Killadelphia, Chiraq is a nickname no city would ever want. It was first coined in 2010 by then-Chicago Police superintendent Jody Weis. “We are not Chiraq,” he said. “We are Chicago.” He was bemoaning the fact that on a good day Chicago’s body count matches — and often exceeds — Iraq on it’s worse day. Little has changed in five years. As of November 23rd, there were 2703 shootings — an average of eight a day — and 440 gun deaths in Chicago in 2015.
Spike Lee tackles the issue head-on with his latest film, Chi-Raq, a musical modelled after the Greek comedy Lysistrata, but set in the mean streets of modern day Chicago. The film is narrated by Dolmedes — presumably a mash up of Dolemite and Archimedes — played by Samuel Jackson, who turns up the Samuel Jackson-ness to 11. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata invented the sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. Spike Lee’s Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris, is so fed up with Chicago’s street violence she organizes a sex strike to end it. No peace, no piece,
After notable supporting performances in Dear White People (as Colandrea “Coco” Conners), The Survivor’s Remorse (as Missy), and Mad Men as Don Draper’s assistant Dawn Chambers, Parris’ turn as Lysistrata in Chi-Raq marks her first proper starring role in a major Hollywood film. We recently had a chance to speak to the Juilliard graduate about Aristophanes, the making of Chi-Raq, working with Samuel Jackson, Angela Bassett and Spike Lee, and what can be done to stop the daily carnage in Chicago and cities like it all across America, including the City Of Brotherly Love.
PHAWKER: Tell me about the character of Lysistrata. I know that she is based on the comedy by Aristophanes. How does Chi-Raq’s Lysistrata differ and what are the similarities?
TEYONAH PARRIS: I play Lysistrata. She is based off of the Greek play Lysistrata written by Aristophanes in 411 BC and it’s a satire. It was a satire in its original form, and we retained that form in our re-imagining of the story. We set it in the south side of Chicago, and we also retained the verse, so most of the film is spoken in verse. She’s a young woman who, in a certain point in the film, she decides she’s had enough of the guns and gang violence running rampant in the community and decides to pose a sex strike. So she gets all her girlfriends together and petitions them to join her and they go on a sex strike, and it ends up going global. It becomes a whole movement of sorts in their efforts to reform their community.
PHAWKER: Spike Lee’s movies tend to be filled with an overarching social message. What would you say are the main themes in Chi-Raq?
TEYONAH PARRIS: Guns. Dealing with gun control, gun responsibility. Certainly, as Spike has said many times, not trying to infringe on anyone’s second amendment or their right to bear arms but we have to better account for the amount of guns that are in our communities and how they’re being used and things like that. Also I think it’s important to see a whole change come from one person having an idea. The whole movement being started just off of one person. It takes one person to spark a conversation, to be able to get a community to mobilize behind them. That’s a really important message, that we all have the power and ability to do something.
PHAWKER: What can you tell me about working alongside Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in a Spike Lee movie?
TEYONAH PARRIS: They’re certainly legends. It was an honor and a privilege to work with them all. I mean, first getting the call from Spike to work on this project. Well, I didn’t really get a call, but in the email that had the script in it. He just sent the email and said read it. But, you know, to work with someone whose work I’ve admired for so very long and to use my art to speak on social injustices and social issues is really cool and really special for me.
PHAWKER: As a graduate of Juilliard, I’m sure that you have been interested in the arts for a long time. How long did you know you wanted to become an actress, what were your inspirations, and what does acting mean to you?
TEYONAH PARRIS: Oh man! I’ve wanted to do acting since I was a little kid. I started off doing pageants and modeling, but I quickly realized you can’t speak in those and I wanted to be able to talk. So I joined the drama club and my mom and dad put me in drama classes, like improv classes and things like that. I was a theater kid so I’ve always known that I wanted to do it, and I’ve been blessed to be able to really pursue my passion.
PHAWKER: After acting in Mad Men, Dear White People, Survivor’s Remorse, and other films, what makes your role as Celimene in The Misanthrope during your undergrad at Juilliard your favorite role to date?
TEYONAH PARRIS: I just love that character. Where I was in my training, you go through four years of doing very intense training and I very much felt like a student in the sense that I’d been in school for so long and studying this craft, sometimes you wanna make the teacher proud, make the director proud. You have to do it right. I have to get an A. Very much that student mentality. This was my last year at Juilliard. I pretty much just said to hell with it, I have to release myself, those feelings that I have to please x y or z teacher or director, and I’m going to explore this character and have fun with her in a way that I had not allowed myself to do before. The sheer nature of that character, she’s a woman who is the life of the party. She’s intelligent. She uses every part of herself on so many levels to manipulate people. She’s such a spicy and fun character and I really just had a blast being her, and getting to explore who she was. I think who she is as a character and where I was in my training just really complemented one another and it was all of the right ingredients that came together to allow me the most fun I’ve ever had acting.
PHAWKER: Getting back to Chi-Raq, do you think the film offers solutions?
TEYONAH PARRIS: I think what our intentions are is to shed light on the issue. I don’t think the film poses to have any solutions or the answers. It’s to get people talking about the issues. It’s addressing it and not being able to sweep it under the rug.
PHAWKER: So to raise awareness then?
TEYONAH PARRIS: Certainly to raise awareness and get the conversation started so that we can make changes. Starting from the government down and from the community grassroots up. So that’s that. I haven’t, well, we shot the entire film in Chicago. The entire film was shot on location in the south side of Chicago, so I certainly spent a good chunk of time there.
PHAWKER: What do you make of the controversy about the movie being Chi-Raq? Some argue that the name misrepresentats Chicago.
TEYONAH PARRIS: What I think of that is, Spike didn’t create the term Chi-Raq. That term was born of the community, specifically local rappers who gave that name as a way to share the sheer magnitude of what it is to live there. The fact that you are essentially safer in Afghanistan or Iraq than you are living in the streets of the south side of Chicago. He didn’t create that name. He also didn’t create the issues at hand. The statistics are there. The facts are there. And this artist is using art to illuminate that. So I would just say that people will begin to talk less about the aesthetic of the movie and more about the message, because we all came together to save lives. I remember that being the first thing Spike said to me when we started working on this, is “We have to save lives!”