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Purple Onyx Productions Presents A Black Contemporary Circus Experience

Photo Credit:
Jason Span aerial artist courtesy of Purple Onyx Productions

Chicago has no shortage of creatives. However, when was the last time you met a circus performer? A Black one at that? Chris Rooney is a member of the BIPOC Circus Alliance does advisory work spotlighting Black performing artists in the circus space and is the founder of Purple Onyx Productions, a performing arts company centered on the movement of melanated bodies. Professionally, he is in the technology space and runs an IT department for a nonprofit organization here in Chicago.

Creatively he’s an aerial and circus artist outside of his day job.“Aerial arts is a combination of acrobatics and music. It’s almost kind of like a dance that’s done up in the air,” he explains. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Chris shared how shifts in the awareness of the lack of diversity birthed a new generation of Black circus performers and enthusiasts.

”A lot of circus organizations were trying to reach out to the Black community in the aftermath of George Floyd. They were looking to diversify their spaces to make them more supportive and inclusive for people of color.” Rooney notes.

It’s been 14 years since he has taken his first flying trapeze class that immediately had him hooked.”I was pretty sure it was going to be some gimmick and even though I didn’t want to go…my first time my body just understood how to move.”

Rooney believes in self-expression and accessing the fullness of our identities as Black adults. Purple Onyx Productions is both an invitation and a reminder.”We don’t often grant ourselves the opportunities for cultural creative expression. I started Purple Onyx Productions to do events that involved Black and Brown performers and that cater to those same audiences,” Rooney shared.

He's found that people of color in the performing arts are typically underrepresented in comparison to the demographics of the metropolitan areas that support them. In cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where there are significant Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations, he has witnessed discrepancies in representation of the performing arts community.

In Chicago, where the Black population is around 20-30 percent, he believes those that make up the circus community are likely well below 10%.

As Rooney is from Minneapolis, his company is having its inaugural performance to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the pop culture icon Princes’ Purple Rain album. The performances are set in the intimate and vibey Aloft Circus Arts (3324 W.Wrightwood) in Logan Square.” It's a renovated church with beautiful stained glass windows, in my opinion, the best-performing space for circus events in Chicago,” said Rooney. With a seating capacity of only 130 guests will be immersed in an intimate world of movement and music.

“I was 10 years old when the Purple Rain album came out. I was inspired by Prince’s confidence and swagger. It was the first time I had seen a Black man in that light,” Rooney said. By incorporating Prince's music into the show, he hopes to draw in a diverse audience who may not typically attend contemporary circus art shows but who would be interested in experiencing something new and exciting while also paying tribute to a beloved artist. The show involves  eight incredible acts, with most of them from Chicago or representing the city.”I'm especially proud that half of our participants are from LGBTQ+ communities in honor of Pride Month. Our headliner, Jason Span, is a professional aerialist from San Diego who tours with Aida Cruises. Jeanne Sparrow from V103 will be our emcee for both nights, guiding the audience through. We also have duo acts and individual performers, including the renowned dancer Crystal Sabbagh from the Chicago community.” Rooney stated.

There are different ticket options available, including general admission, seats at shared tables, and VIP tables for two. Tickets are selling quickly, so it is recommended to purchase them sooner rather than later to avoid missing out on the show. Because it is a smaller venue, and the show is expected to sell out you don't want to delay getting your tickets.

Chris wants guests to get into the spirit to have the best experience ever.“I do hope people will get into the whole 80s vibe with shoulder pads and big hair. We want to recreate some of the concert scenes from the movie. The performers feed off the energy of the crowd,” Rooney said excitedly.

Tickets for both shows on Saturday, June 22nd, and Sunday, June 23rd are available at bit.ly/purplerain40.

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