Breaking down racial segregation with neighborhood theater
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Segregation often seems so intractable, so intransigent. How can Chicago even begin to undo systemic, deliberate housing policies that have conspired for a century to keep its residents apart?
Art is one course of action.
The Chicago region’s hyper-segregation has inspired a hyper-local response among artists and cultural workers.
The Chicago Home Theater Festival, launched in 2013, confronts racial polarization by inviting people to get together in strangers’ living rooms to share performances, a meal and ultimately community building. Each spring, artistic producers curate creative spaces in homes throughout the city — from Portage Park to Pilsen, Austin to Uptown, South Shore to Humboldt Park. In a city so entrenched in neighborhood boundaries, the annual festival aims to attract folk to new or unfamiliar neighborhoods while enjoying transformative performances.
Chicago boasts that it’s a city of neighborhoods, and while that instills unparalleled pride, the balkanization of our communities allows segregation to carry on unchallenged.
Laley Lippard, who is founding executive producer of CHTF, says producers are in constant conversation about dismantling segregation.
“Questions we continually return to in practice are where do the more subtle and insidious invisible boundaries — borders and thresholds that reflect and reinforce the public lines of segregation — exist, and how do we undermine them as well? CHTF aims to bring a vast diversity of people together to share space and story,” Lippard said. “I believe there is an inimitable alchemy in this kind of layered storytelling and witness in private space that is transformative, fueling our struggle for justice in public ones.”
Two years ago, my family and I attended our first festival in adjacent apartments in a Greater Grand Grossing walk-up. We watched a one-woman performance. We ate West African stew. We jumped double dutch in the middle of the street. We met new people. The racially-mixed crowd bonded and for a moment we all forgot that the South Side neighborhood we communed in is subjected to invisible boundaries.
Inspired by that experience, the following year my husband and I signed up to be hosts. Diverse strangers packed our sunlit Hyde Park apartment. Our 16-year-old played the guitar. A David Bowie-inspired spaceship transfixed the audience in the back office. Dancers used the long hallway to draw the crowd up front and a DJ closed out the afternoon with jamming among elders and young folk. And we all had a good time.
Aymar Jean Christian is a queer black man who said he doesn’t share the same social and cultural networks with his Lakeview neighbors. As a CHTF artistic producer, he said he’s seen the power of bridging boundaries.
“Sometimes our cultural performances and exchanges are deep and dark, other times light and celebratory,” Christian said. “Every home is different, because the context, artists, and spaces are different. This is what I long for in the arts and so rarely find: experiences that strike me to the core, break preconceptions and open up spaces for learning, healing, and inspiration.”
This year’s cadre of artists include xicana cultural producer and performance artist Christian Cruz, Somalian poet and educator Ladan Osman, ChiRican actress and comedian Melissa DuPrey and instrumentalist Khari Lemuel.
Warm spring evenings of art aren’t going to reverse the historical impact of redlining or racially restrictive covenants.
“CHTF is not a course in urban renewal. It’s a practice space,” said another founding producer, Irina Zadov. “An opportunity to imagine and create the kind of city we want to inhabit. A home where being seen and heard is the norm, not the exception.”
The Chicago Home Theater Festival runs May 12-26. More information can be found at http://www.chicagohtf.org
Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”
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