Ilesa Duncan is the executive/artistic director at Pegasus Theatre Chicago. Her recent directing work there includes the Jeff-Recommended, sold-out Shakin the Mess Outta Misery, the world premiere of Jeff-Recommended Rutherford’s Travels and For Her as a Piano.
Other recent credits include Neverwhere at Lifeline Theatre (Jeff-Recommended), Broken Fences at 16th Street Theater, Jeff Award-nominated The Nativity with Congo Square and the Jeff Award-winning Jar the Floor at ETA Creative Arts.
Duncan has also worked with The Goodman, Writers Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, Lifeline Theater, Stage Left and Chicago Dramatists, as well as theatre companies in Ohio, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and New York.
Her creative nonfiction short stories have been published (Columbia College Chicago) and she’s written poems and screenplays. For the stage, she co-adapted Rutherford’s Travels from the National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage, co-wrote and directed Blakk Love: Stoeez of A Darker Hue and facilitated the project Do You See What I’m Saying for Chameleon.
In January of next year, Duncan will assume the role of artistic director at Lifeline Theatre, while remaining Pegasus’ executive/producing director.
Her latest project is directing the startling drama Eclipsed at Chicago Dramatists Theatre. Written by actress and playwright Danai Gurira (Black Panther, The Walking Dead) and starring Morayo Orija, Maya V. Prentiss, Aja Singletary, Adhana Reid and Sola Thompson, Eclipsed is the first play to premiere on Broadway with an all-female and Black cast and creative team.
The show was inspired by a photo that Gurira saw in the New York Times. “I was raised in Africa and I had never seen anything like it, women with AK-47s, dressed very hip and looking formidable,” she said. “I was keen to one day pursue that story and put it on the stage.”
The setting is a bullet-riddled rebel army camp during the Liberian civil war in 2003, where the five “wives” of a commanding officer band together to form a fragile community and care for a 15-year-old girl who has been abducted.
Their lives are upset by the return of a former “wife” turned rebel soldier and, as the war draws to a close, each woman must discover her own personal means of survival in this deeply felt portrait of women finding and testing their own strength.
N’DIGO recently caught up with Duncan to find out more about her career and her turn in the director’s chair for Eclipsed.
N’DIGO: How did you get your start in the world of theater? Is it what you always wanted to do?
Ilesa Duncan: Believe it or not, I actually got my start in a kindergarten drama workshop during holiday break and I was instantly hooked. It literally is all I’ve ever wanted to do since then.
As a fan of theater, I’ve heard of the title Executive/Artistic Director, but can you break down what some of your duties are in that role for Pegasus Theatre?
It is a myriad of things. Pretty much everything in one. From artistic leadership and visioning to stewardship to fundraising to marketing to hiring/managing and even being a board member, to name a few.
What is it about Eclipsed that made you want to jump on board and take the reins as director? Were you able to work with and/or get input from Danai?
The idea of this season was inspired by the social justice that so many have sought for years regarding sexual assault, abuse and trafficking – particularly its impact on Black and brown women and children. Danai painstakingly researched, explored and interviewed Liberian women, delving deeply into their world in order to honor them.
Being a writer/director yourself, can you speak to the extra something that you can bring to the director’s chair that maybe a non-writing director can’t?
Perhaps it would be having sensitivity to and honoring the author/playwright’s intention.
What are three things in your opinion that make a great director?
The ability to listen, to perceive, and to actively envision.
What do you want people to take away from Eclipsed after seeing it?
To empathize with sexually assaulted women, children, and people, and to take action to help everyone respect and nurture humanity.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?
Not too many people know that I’m a total fantasy/adventure geek.
Best advice to aspiring theatremakers?
Take risks, connect and get involved with theatres in your community, collaborate and make partnerships with other individuals and theatre companies. We are in a climate where arts and artists and those with a voice are being devalued, so we need to work together collectively and with compassion.
What’s next for Ilesa Duncan?
I’ll be working with Pegasus Theatre on the Young Playwrights Festival and crafting their future and will then in January begin working with the venerable Lifeline Theatre as Artistic Director.
(Eclipsed runs through November 4 at Pegasus’s resident home Chicago Dramatists, located at 773 North Aberdeen. For more information, visit PegasusTheatreChicago.org.)