"I didn't come out as a little person until I was 26."
So begins a story written and performed by Tekki Lomnicki, artistic director of Tellin' Tales Theatre and director of Divercity, Tellin' Tales fifth annual solo performance showcase whose cast members all have disabilities. This year's Divercity opens June 22 at Prop Thtr, and performers' disabilities include blindness, brain injury, Holt-Oram Syndrome, muscular degeneration and dwarfism.
However, Lomnicki didn't always feel at home in the disabled community.
"I always had this feeling that I was very alone," she said via phone. "I didn't bond with other people with disabilities because I was in a regular classroom." As an adult, she began teaching storytelling workshops to kids with disabilities and found a whole new world. "Once I started meeting these children, I realized they were just like me: fighting to make a difference in the world and be accepted, and I just had an instant bond with them."
Since then, she's become an advocate for people with disabilities. Lomnicki said, "[Before] I wanted to blend in and 'pass' as a person without a disability when it was, like, hello?"
Divercity's title, Lomnicki said, originated "because Chicago is such a diverse city and we are a diverse people." She added, "it has become a big hit for [Tellin' Tales] … because there are not enough solo performers with disabilities out there that the general public sees."
Divercity performers develop their stories through a six-week workshop that Lomnicki leads. No acting experience is required and thanks to funding from the Chicago Community Trust, the workshop is free. Because space is limited, when choosing applicants Lomnicki "just did first come, first serve. Everybody's interesting, you know?"
During the six weeks, "[w]e worked on setting, characters, point of view … and we also talked about conflict. Every story has to have a conflict and to me, that's key." Lomnicki also stressed the idea of "show, not tell" to workshop participants: "Doing a performance is not about narrative; it's about actually talking to someone and being natural." From there, performers adapted their stories for the stage. "[Our stories] are theater, not just where we stand up and tell them," Lomnicki explained. "It's music and lighting and blocking, and people moving around the stage."
Regarding intersectionality, Lomnicki said, "We as people are not only disabled." This year Divercity has its first-ever deaf performer, who attended workshop sessions with interpreters. "He's doing this fabulous piece about labels and how [not to] put a label on him because he's so many different things!" Lomnicki enthused. "He doesn't like [to be called] hearing-impaired, he can't stand that. And he's gay and he doesn't like being labeled as a bear or a cub!"
Performer Derrick Dawson, a gay Black veteran who lost a leg from diabetes, will present a story on a life-changing job experience. "He was giving this anti-racism workshop and he realized by sharing how many different personas he had, how many different intersections of identity his life took, that he was reaching so many other people that he would have if he'd kept to himself," Lomnicki said. "This one woman came to him and said that just by being here and taking this class, she was able to tell her father she was bisexual."
According to Lomnicki, Dawson's story and several others inspired the intersectionality theme. "There are going to be people in that audience…that are going to be touched by Derek's story and say 'hey yeah, I'm some of those things and it's okay.' I may not be disabled, someone might say, but I am LGBTQ or I am a veteran or I am Black." Overall, Lomnicki said, intersectionality fits in well with Divercity's mission: to break down barriers between those with disabilities and those without. "We feel that once people hear the personal stories of someone with a disability, you see that we really have more than common than we don't," she said. "We are more alike than different."
Tellin' Tales Theatre Presents: Divercity runs June 22-24 at Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Ave. There will be an additional performance July 8 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, 5700 W. Midway Park. For more information, visit TellinTales.org .