Passionate player, Illinois alumnus Tyrone Phillips

Actor and director Tyrone Phillips aims to change the world through socially relevant theatre.

Tyrone Phillips Theatre can “actually change people’s minds and beliefs,” says actor/director Tyrone Phillips. (Photo by Joe Mazza—Brave Lux)
Actor and director Tyrone Phillips aims to change the world through socially relevant theatre.

During his freshman year at Niles North High School in Skokie, Ill., Tyrone Phillips, ’12 FAA, wandered in from football practice in search of a water fountain. Instead, he walked into the black box theatre. “I remember thinking, ‘Whatever is in this room, I want to be a part of it,’” he says.

Now, Phillips is more than a part of the Chicago theatre scene—he’s helping shape it. Within months of graduating, he and fellow Illinois alumni Mercedes White, ’12 FAA; Julian Parker, ’12 FAA; and Kelson McAuliffe, ’12 FAA, launched Definition Theatre Co. and staged their first play, The Brothers Size, a drama set in the Louisiana bayou.

Go to a Definition production, and you’ll notice some differences from other companies. Movie trailer-like promos of upcoming productions bridge the gap between film and theatre. Then there’s the diverse cast; the theatre focuses on multicultural ensembles. “We’re giving opportunities to people who are usually thought of for maybe one play per season in the big houses,” Phillips says.

Their efforts have earned widespread acclaim. Definition’s most recent production—Byhalia, Mississippi, which Phillips directed—earned six nominations for Jeff Awards (celebrating excellence in Chicago Theatre). And actress Phylicia Rashad just joined its advisory board.

Meanwhile, Phillips’ acting career has flourished. His performance as Torvald in Definition’s production of A Doll’s House caught the eye of Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones, who last year named him one of 10 “Hot New Faces of the Chicago Stage.” In Fall 2015, Phillips made his debut at the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Co. as Ampleforth in George Orwell’s 1984.

You currently can see Phillips in a DiGiorno TV commercial, and when he’s not auditioning for other roles, he’s spending time in the director’s chair. After a remount of Byhalia, Mississippi at the Steppenwolf this summer, he’ll return to Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana to direct Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea this fall.

Phillips still recalls his senior year of high school, when he was cast in the lead role of Marvin—a homosexual Jewish man—in the William Finn musical Falsettoland. Walking in that character’s footsteps transformed him. “That’s when I realized theatre could actually change people’s minds and beliefs,” Phillips says.