Off the bustling streets of Chicago, the freshly painted, bright yellow brick walls of Roni and Mac Grocery catch your attention. As you step inside, a charming and enthusiastic young man greets you, Charlie. The aisles are lined with mostly bags of chips and candy. Rows of Grey Goose and cigarette boxes frame the register where he tends to his customers. Suddenly a figure dressed in all black rushes through the entrance. He’s holding a gun. BOOM! He pulls the trigger and dashes back toward the door, all in a matter of seconds. Charlie has been shot.
This isn’t another Chicago crime story. Boxed Experience, or BoxedXp, combines a realistic premise with elements of an escape room to provide its audience with an immersive take on traditional theater. As the narrative continues, the audience walks through the storyline with the actors, searching for clues in a Choose Your Own Adventure-esque effort to solve the crime and decide if the accused character is guilty or innocent.
The show gets intense, as themes of racism, colorism, and gender identity, among others, are portrayed through the characters. Creator and Executive Director Marcus Rashad said that he sought out a diverse cast and crew to accurately represent those topics.
“If we’re telling a story from somebody else’s eyes, it wouldn’t be right if we just had an all-Black cast or an all-white cast,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we had everybody [represented] ‘cause if we’re speaking on inclusion and diversity, we want to make sure that we can show that in the story as well.”
Creative Director Veronica Rodriguez felt it was important to balance the weight of these societal issues while keeping the show enjoyable for the audience.
“It was a big task to make this fun because those topics are not fun, so to find ways to add those elements, that was the real challenge,” she said.
The audience learns more about the plot by exploring the setting. From handwritten notes to trophy displays that few would be proud of to literal writing on the walls, there are plenty of props that provide details that the script does not. The audience learns more about the characters’ motives, histories, accomplishments, and relationships with one another by delving into their bedrooms and workplaces.
Rashad says that while the initial idea for the production began in 2019, the final touches of what Boxed Experience would become were finalized once Rodriguez became involved in January 2021.
“My thought process on this production was I really wanted this to be something that people could come in and we would smack them dead in the face,” he said. But after consulting with Rodriguez, who has 10 years of experience in immersive theater, he realized that they could weave in those social commentaries in other ways.
“Those subtleties were Veronica’s idea. She added that subtle touch versus having the narrative be intense throughout,” he explained.
Actor Brandon Bowler plays Ashton, the lead prosecutor in BoxedXp. He feels that diminishing the existence of the fourth wall enhances the viewers’ understanding of the characters.
“It adds a lot of layers to it. It allows you to kind of go on that journey with the actor. You get to see more into their head a little bit, what they’re thinking, and it allows you to actually interact with the actor and the audience too. Definitely, as Ashton, there’s some interaction I get to have that I actually enjoy doing, in terms of improving and just having fun with the audience.”
While the immersion provides additional insight and enjoyment for the viewers, the actors agree that it makes their job a little more fun too.
“It gives you energy and things to feed off of. People might laugh or they might be like ugh, which I think makes it easier. It allows for a little bit of improv and some freedom to do your own thing,” said actor Bobby Izumikawa who plays Ben.
The immersion also produces interaction within the audience members themselves.
At times, the spectators are separated from each other and must communicate in order to share parts of the story that their counterparts missed. Completing the experience requires teamwork and builds a sense of community between groups of strangers who are tasked with a common goal during the 90-minute show.
Rodriguez says that observing the crowd interacting with each other is one of her favorite parts of the production.
“Sometimes it can get loud, especially if you have outspoken people. Sometimes we get ‘No I think he’s guilty, ‘No I think he’s innocent,’ and that’s really interesting to see,” she said.
Building that sense of community and giving a platform to the people of Chicago is important to Rashad, and it is something he intended to implement throughout all aspects of the show.
“We have fashion designers, we have the set designers, we have the creative director and the actors, everybody is based in Chicago or transplants,” he said. “No matter where we travel to, we want to be able to give jobs to individuals to make money and be able to get their work shown. Why not? If we have the position and platform to do it, why not make it happen?”
20-year-old Bryan Tawiah learned this after he attended BoxedXp as a viewer, had a conversation with Rashad, and left with the role of Charlie. Tawiah considers himself an artist, but at the time he had no acting experience.
“I was anxious and my anxiety levels were spiking a little bit, mostly because since it’s immersive I actually interact with the audience. If you would have seen my thoughts it would just be a big wow,” he said of his opening night.
Now that he’s performed a few times, he says the immersion is his favorite part.
“In the first couple of scenes, I’m directly acting with them. I get to see who reciprocates, like who actually is a part of the show, who’s just watching and I try to take advantage of that and try to bring them more into the world that we’ve created here,” he explained.
The production is an innovative modernization of the classic theatrical experience. In a fast-paced, social media-driven world, it’s able to keep the viewer’s attention. This experience doesn’t necessarily suggest a resolution for the heavy issues it tackles, however it forces the viewer to stare them in the face and reflect on how their choices will directly control the outcome of the story and thus, people’s lives.
Boxed Experience is located at the Roosevelt Collection, 150 W. Delano Ct. The show runs from Thursday to Sunday through Dec. Ticket prices range from $35-$55.