Actress Teyonah Parris spent a month this past summer on Chicago’s South Side filming the highly-anticipated Spike Lee joint Chi-Raq. She portrays lead character Lysistrata, the love interest of a hip-hop artist and gang member (Nick Cannon). She leads and organizes all of the gang members’ girlfriends to abstain from sex until the ongoing battles between rival gangs stop.
Parris joins a dynamic ensemble cast including Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Harry J. Lennix, Dave Chappelle and La La Anthony. “I’m very honored to have been a part of it,” says the extremely charming South Carolina native who honed her acting chops at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities prior to studying at Julliard. “[Spike] trusted me with this character in a larger effort to share the message of what’s happening across our nation.”
Lee’s satire is a revived adaptation of Aristophanes’ Peloponnesian War-era Greek comedy Lysistrata. The film’s title is an amalgamation of Chicago and Iraq, a stark reflection of the Windy City’s high incidence of gun-related deaths.
While filming Chi-Raq, Parris, who co-starred as the sassy, self-deprecating web series starlet “Coco” in the hit Sundance satire Dear White People, frequently spoke on-set with numerous parents who lost their children to senseless violent acts. Those exchanges allowed Parris to bring more compassion and empathy to her on-screen performance. “You can’t help but be changed and feel for those families,” says Parris. “It motivated me to want to do a thorough job telling this story.”
Parris actually performed in a theatrical version of Lysistrata once but not as the star. Just standing in front of audiences invigorates her. “It feeds me,” she continues gasping while she talks. “I get to be somebody different, play, explore someone else’s story and share that with people.”
Chi-Raq is the first theatrical release to be distributed by Amazon. The successful online company’s backing proved to be a great partnership. “They are so enthusiastic and they support this film a million times over,” says Parris. “They believe in the movie and message that [Spike] is making. They’ve really been a pleasure to work with.”
Born the middle child and only girl, Parris, who takes periodic pauses before she gives a response, grew up an all-around athlete and regular in pageants. The cool Southern belle with natural hair and flawless features had the honor of being the first freshman and African-American teen to be crowned queen of her high school.
Parris’ passion ultimately led to her being cast on Broadway to perform alongside Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def (Yasmin Bey) in the George C. Wolfe-directed A Free Man of Color. Parris also plays the well-to-do, Ivy League-educated Missy Vaughn on the hit Starz basketball dramedy Survivor’s Remorse. She broke the color barrier as secretary Dawn Chambers in an all-white advertising agency for two seasons on the Emmy award-winning AMC drama Mad Men.
It’s important to Parris that her fellow cast and crew members are proud of her performances and feel comfortable working with her. “I just want to do well,” the Screen Actors Guild award nominee asserts, “but I don’t take it for granted that I’ve been afforded some amazing opportunities very early in my career. I just try to concentrate on the work and what we’re doing collaboratively as artists.”
Anytime Parris transitions between stage and screen, she doesn’t necessarily perceive it as a challenge. The consummate performer takes pride in studying the nuances and mechanics of her craft. “Acting is acting,” she proclaims. “At the heart and the core of it, you’re trying to affect change and get something out of someone. There’s technique and finesse that comes with each medium, and I’m still learning those.”
Not only does acting get Parris’ adrenaline going: it’s her choice weapon for addressing and combating social problems. “I’m honored to use my art to comment in our society about things that are happening,” says Parris, “Hopefully, getting people to, as [Spike] says, ‘Wake up,’ and see things a little differently. That’s what I want it to do: to heal and help people.”
Performing in front of the camera and in theatre has been an amazing journey for Parris. She’s starring in another film, Where Children Play, as a woman overcoming past and family trauma following her mother’s death and father becoming ill. Shot in Los Angeles early this year, the film is available for DVD and video-on-demand beginning Dec. 1.
In the meantime, Parris would like to refrain from telling people how they should react to Chi-Raq. She reiterates that she aspires to deliver a stellar performance. More importantly, she hopes that the film will create more engagement between various communities about how to handle violence.
“I do hope people at least feel compelled to change things,” says Parris. “Have the conversations and start the dialogue about what’s happening from the structural side to our very own neighborhoods in the U.S.”
Chi-Raq will have a limited theatrical release beginning Dec. 4. Check local box offices for screenings.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.