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Acting Alumnus Returns as Director for the Second Time at Krannert

By: Erica Floss-Becker

The University of Illinois theatre department will always be home for Tyrone Phillips, a 2012 acting major graduate. It isn't just home to him because of his performances, but because it is where he got his start as a director.

Phillips had an epiphany moment during his last show at the university his senior year at the Krannert center, during a conversation with the director of his show and the lighting designer.

Phillips realized that outside of his acting role that he cared about, he was intrigued by the world of the play.

He then gathered a group and started a trial and error process during his last year at the university. He learned the elements of a production through a workshop at the Armory Free Theatre, which was a student run theatre. That all led up to his passion for directing and current role as founding Artistic Director of his very own, Definition Theatre.

Only one month after graduation, Definition Theatre, an ensemble based theatre, had their first production in Chicago, and was later officially recognized as a nonprofit organization. Currently, there are seven University of Illinois alumni who are a part of Definition Theatre that has been on the team with Phillips since his epiphany moment.

As a first generation Jamaican American, Phillips explained that the mission for Definition Theatre was really clear, in that the ensemble would have equal voice and leadership, and include diverse and innovative collaborators.

The problem of inequality within theatre and unequal roles of power, once thought of as a Champaign problem to Phillips, was then seen as a Chicago problem and soon realized a national problem.

According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), 58.6% of all roles on New York City stages were white actors from 2018-2019 with only 29% black actors. Also According to the AAPAC, "white actors played 80% of all lead roles in musicals and 89.7% of all lead roles in plays, a clear indication that significantly less effort was put towards diverse casting in the most visible and centered roles."

There was also indication of bias of white directors within the New York theatre industry. 81.3% were white directors shaping the stories, while only 10.4% were black. There was 78.7% of white directors at non-profits and 93.8% of white directors on Broadway.

With over 275 Chicago theatre, only four are in the south side. Phillips has been renting out spaces in Chicago, but him and his Definition Theatre team are now in the works of building from the ground up in his very own space in the south side. Phillip's goal is to be at the source of the inequality, and Definition Theatre audience will soon have one consistent theatre.

While Phillips directed "Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea," at Krannert back in 2019, this is his second time directing at Krannert Center for Preforming Arts here in Champaign. This is a full-circle moment for him to be directing again at a place where he got his start.

This year, he is directing "The Royale," a play about Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion in 1908.

The Krannert Center website explains the play as, "Jay 'The Sport' Jackson dreams of being the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. But it’s 1905, and in the racially segregated world of boxing, his chances are as good as knocked out. When a crooked boxing promoter hatches a plan for 'the fight of the century,' 'The Sport' just might land a place in the ring with the reigning white heavyweight champion."

Part of Johnson's journey, as Phillip explained, was that as you are arriving to success, how do you also remember your roots and how do you not turn your back on where you came from, even though that may mean changing social, economic status? That balance is showcased through Jack Johnson's character and experiences in "The Royale."

Opening night for this year's show, "The Royale" is on Thursday, February 23rd in the Tyrone Festival Theatre and will have other performances following that date as well.

For tickets, visit:

Because Definition Theatre is a non-profit donations are much appreciated and can be made through this link:

Make sure to check out our live interview with Tyrone Phillips to learn more:

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