When Julieanne Ehre founded Pivot Arts in 2012, her goal was to create a multi-arts organization focusing on innovative contemporary performance. She also wanted to ground the organizations work in the Rogers Park/Edgewater/Uptown neighborhoods.

‘Don’t Look Back/Must Look Back’
When: Oct. 20-Nov. 19
Where: Chinese Mutual Aid Association, 1016 W. Argyle
Tickets: $35
Info: pivotarts.org/events

“I wanted to have an impact on the neighborhoods around where I live,” Ehre says. “Chicago is a pretty segregated city and these are a bit more integrated and diverse which makes them interesting places to do work.”

Ehre, who forged a partnership with Loyola University, has since created the Pivot Arts Festival, an annual 10-day event that brings innovative performance to these far north side neighborhoods. In addition to this, Pivot also stages unusual, site-specific works, which seek partnerships with neighborhood organizations.

Last year’s site-specific work, “The Memory Tour,” a sometimes interactive journey through ideas about memory, took audiences to different locations in the Edgewater neighborhood. This year’s site-specific experience, “Don’t Look Back/Must Look Back,” is staged in Uptown where Pivot teams up with the Chinese Mutual Aid Association for a look at the immigrant experience. (The intimate performance is limited to 16 audience members per show.)

“For a lot of immigrants, Uptown is their first entry point into the city,” says Pivot artistic associate Tanya Palmer, who is creating the show’s text. “It’s a meeting place for different cultures and we wanted to explore that.”

“Don’t Look Back/Must Look Back,” a work devised by the ensemble, moves throughout the Aid Association’s offices and into another building across the street. The ensemble features Christopher Acevedo, Samantha Beach, Lucy Carapetyan, Phyllis Liu, Sarah Lo, Ashlyn Lozano, Edward Mawere and Jin Park.

The Aid Association, originally formed by Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, has grown to represent immigrants from many countries including the Philippines, Burma, Ethiopia and Russia. It connected Pivot with some of its clients who were then interviewed by Ehre, Palmer and director Devon de Mayo.

Palmer says they first envisioned the piece as “almost a Kafkaesque story” about the “long, complicated process” of making your way to the United States and unwinding all the red tape that can be so daunting. So the interview questions were geared toward that process and not to the interviewee’s personal stories. But the creative team quickly discovered people did want to share the often harrowing details of their journeys from homeland to Chicago.

“One of the reasons why the folks we talked to were so willing to share these often very painful experiences is because they are not asked very often about them,” Palmer says. “They are often hard to recount but they do want to share their stories. They do want them to be known.”

Adds de Mayo: “The thing that really had a huge impact on me was just how positive everyone was as we talked about things that were clearly traumatic. That was powerful.”

Using the immigrant’s stories as inspiration, the ensemble began to create the piece, which they knew would not be staged in a conventional way in a conventional space. As director, de Mayo wanted to think outside the box: “I’ve been doing a lot of movement with the actors and we’ll create either very literal movements of office work and bureaucracy or much more abstract sort of poetic expressions based on the interviews that we keep revisiting and digging back into.”

Sarah Lo, with a projected photo from James A. Bowey’s exhibit ‘When Home Won’t Let You Stay,” in Pivot Arts’ world premiere of “Don’t Look Back/Must Look Back.” | MICHAEL BROSILOW

The show also features images from photographer James Bowey’s exhibit “When Home Won’t Let You Stay,” which features portraits of refugees in America and their stories of hope and perseverance (https://jamesbowey.atavist.com/home).

“We’ll be using the photographs in the final stages of the piece,” de Mayo says. “As a sort of beacon for the audience.”

Ehre notes that “Don’t Look Back/Must Look Back” is not about current immigration issues (all the interviewees came here legally) but rather about the importance of talking to refugees about their backgrounds and their stories.

“I think what art does best is humanize and personalize people’s stories and make them accessible to a wider audience,” Ehre says. “This work came out of a desire to educate myself about my neighbors, to educate audiences about refugee experiences. Now more than ever it does feel like an important time to tell these stories.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.