Karen Yarbrough, the owner of an insurance agency, the current Cook County Recorder of Deeds, and the Democratic candidate for Cook County Clerk, is known widely as an entrepreneur and politician. Now you can call also call her a playwright.
Yarbrough’s first play, Passin’ Where the River Bends, premiered on Sept. 7 at Madison Street Theatre, 1010 Madison St. in Oak Park, before an audience of several hundred people. The production ran through Sept. 9.
During an interview last week, Yarbrough said she wrote the play around a decade ago, prompted, in part, by her research into critical points in African-American history, such as the Underground Railroad and the first and second Great Migrations of African Americans to the north.
“I was struck by reading that there were more than 200,000 [fair-skinned] blacks who moved up to Canada, passed for white and were never heard of again,” Yarbrough said.
The play is set in 1960s Maywood on the banks of the Des Plaines River, where the protagonist, Eliza Benson (portrayed by Rosette Jarriett, artistic director of the Magnified Gift Theater Company, which produced the play), lives with her caretaker, Iris (played by Sony Cha’Rae Ward).
When a young student, Mazie (played by Amber Sallis), seeks out Benson to interview for a school assignment she’s working on, the elderly woman, who is in her late 80s, seizes the moment to reveal her truth.
Mazie, spunky and determined, must navigate through Iris’ stubborn protectiveness, and Benson’s sleeping spells, to get the sweep of the elderly woman’s story, which anchors the play.
Benson and members of her family passed for white, keeping a critical part of their identities hidden to the world. The play shows them dealing with the fallout of this elaborate subterfuge.
“The play’s name is more indicative of somebody passing as a different race,” said Leonard Robinson, the play’s director. “Each race or society of people has secrets that they keep from each other or their surroundings.
“Passing is something we do every day,” Robinson added. “This play is about identity and being able to be comfortable with who you are in your own skin. It’s about the ability to relate to others and to keep your true identity when others around you are dismissing or ignoring you, like you’re invisible.”
Yarbrough said that, although the play is not based on her own family history, Eliza Benson is the name of her husband’s mother. And while she did not herself act in the play, the longtime politician said she’s no stranger to the stage.
“I performed in Amen Corner,” she said, referencing a three-act play by James Baldwin that was put on in a now-defunct theater company in Maywood.
“That’s where I met Leonard and Percy Littleton,” she said. “During that time, I was running for office. They asked me to read a small part and I did. Next thing I know, I ended up with the lead role of Sister Margaret. I enjoyed it immensely.”
“Each one of us is acting on the stage of life every day,” said Robinson, explaining why he decided to cajole Yarbrough into the lead role.
“Our roles change, depending on which group of people we’re with,” he said. “People in public office do this even more because they have to communicate what they want to get across on different people’s levels so that their message is understood.”
Robinson said Yarbrough settled into the role naturally, without losing her sense of self.
“A lot of times, I tell people, ‘Just be yourself, know the story and tell it how you would tell it,'” he said.
That could also be Yarbrough’s mantra as a playwright, a role she’s also growing into rather naturally. She has two more plays in the hopper.