Three headshots. On the left is Myrna García, a Latinx woman, in red-and-orange patterned top. In the middle is Nick Thornton, a white male in a gray patterned top, lying on the floor and propped on his right elbow. On the right is Andrew Biliter, a white man in a dark sweater, who is looking to his right.
From left: Myrna García, Nick Thorton, and Andrew Biliter Credit: Courtesy Mudlark Theater

The last time I checked in with Evanston’s youth-oriented Mudlark Theater in April 2020, they were in the midst of pivoting to online workshops and creating digital shows. The company has returned to live classes and performances since then. And now, with the help of two grants, they’re poised to further expand their focus on the Latinx community in Evanston and surrounding areas.

The first grant is from Northwestern University’s Office of Neighborhood and Community Relations in the amount of $47,000, and is earmarked toward creating a new bilingual theater work based on the experiences and stories of the Latinx community. Northwestern professors Myrna García and Henry Godinez (who is also a resident artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre) will collaborate with the Mudlark students and staff on the work, which they aim to present to the public in spring 2023.

The second grant, in the amount of $3,200, is from local education funders Foundation65 and is focused on creating a bilingual street performance with students at Evanston’s Washington Elementary School, using both Latinx folklore traditions and the principles set forth by Augusto Boal, the Brazilian pioneer of Theater of the Oppressed, which originally emerged in the 1970s. Boal, who was influenced by educator and theorist Paulo Freire (author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed), sought to use theater as a means of promoting social change from a left perspective.

Andrew Biliter, Mudlark’s artistic director, notes in an email that these new programs aren’t the first time Mudlark has partnered with Evanston’s diverse communities in creating work. 

“At schools with large Latinx populations, Mudlark has sometimes offered improv classes in Spanish,” says Biliter. “But Mudlark’s most successful outreach efforts to date have focused on engaging with and chronicling the legacy of Evanston’s Black community. Our 2017 play I.D. was an original co-production with the (now-defunct) Art of Evolution Theatre that explored narratives of anti-Black racism in our city. Our January 2020 show Concerning Foster was a partnership with Shorefront Legacy Center, a history center that chronicles the Black experience on Chicago’s North Shore. Foster told the story of Evanston’s segregated all-Black K-8 school, its integration and eventual closure. Research for the play included interviews with former students and school administrators. Both productions featured majority-Black casts of Evanston youth, and both inspired a lot of community interest and conversation.”

García is an interdisciplinary scholar whose signature course, “Latinx Chicago: Positionality, Community Histories, & Academic Knowledges,” reveals her deep interest in uncovering the history of Latinx activism in Chicago particularly. But she also has a personal reason for feeling invested in the Mudlark project.

“My daughter is in the bilingual program [TWI, or two-way immersion] in an Evanston elementary school. And she participates in the theater. She’s biracial Latina and Black, so I thought it’s for children like her, that demographic,” says García. “And then also, the population of Latinx in Evanston has been growing. If anything, the Latinx population outside of the city of Chicago has really proliferated. As a scholar, this is something that I teach about. I’m an ethnic studies scholar. The whole idea is to really explore the undertold and untold histories that are really, I argue, directly related to power. Whose stories are told, under what circumstances, and what archives exist? What counts as knowledge and worthy to be archivable?”

The plan for both Mudlark partnerships isn’t just to develop new pieces of theater. It’s also to create replicable curricula that can be used in other programs and other classrooms.

Nick Thornton, Mudlark’s education director, notes that the aim for the Washington School project is “creating a program that can welcome many different student artists and the new different kinds of learners. And so we wanted to focus on folk art and then the Theater of the Oppressed to give sort of footholds for people who might find themselves attracted to the puppetry of folk art and the imagery, or the performance, along with the conversational and community focus work of doing Theater of Oppressed pieces in their school hallway. It all sort of centers on the idea of rooting ourselves amid lineages and traditions, learning from the past, and then using that knowledge to become people who feel agency to make change in their community.”

As for the Northwestern program, the story collection process will likely involve several different community organizations, but the precise timeline and methodology is still being worked out. However, García notes her own experience with gathering oral histories, particularly around Rudy Lozano and other Chicago Latinx activists in the 1960s and ’70s, as an example of why this work is so crucial. She hopes the work created by Mudlark will also live on after the initial performance.

“I think this is a really nice opportunity to really bring out the humanity of Latinx people by just really debunking some of the stereotypes and really capturing that diversity and complexity,” García says. “We’re not just a homogeneous population. And I think it’s gonna be good just to amplify the students’ interests and their voices, whether it’s their own family experiences or a historical vignette that they’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was happening during this time of migration.’ So I’m excited about that creativity and the humanity of this. Sometimes when we deal with the Latinx population, there’s just a lot of stereotypes that are negative. How do we capture that joy?”

Capturing joy is something that Mudlark has focused on for all their young artists since returning from the shutdown. Biliter notes, “Many, many children that I work with are still reeling from the mental health implications of the remote school year. It was devastating. We’ve adjusted our directing and teaching practices accordingly by building in more time to take breaks, to check in, to answer questions, or just to breathe. We don’t assume kids know certain basics anymore about how to handle social situations or act out those situations on stage. They struggle more to come up with scenes in small groups. One residency, which was originally focused on activism, was shifted to focus on developing kids’ social skills in general, and the reactions were really positive. You have to meet kids where they are, and where they are is different because some essential experiences were taken away from them.” 

Changes at the Dance Center

Earlier this month, the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago announced the departure of Ellen Chenoweth, the Center’s director of the dance presenting series and an assistant instructor in Columbia’s dance program.

Chenoweth came to Columbia after stints at Philadelphia’s celebrated multidisciplinary Pig Iron Theatre Company, the collaboration and advocacy nonprofit Dance Exchange, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. During her five-year Dance Center tenure, she oversaw the creation of online digital performances, classes, discussions, and workshops through the Dance Buffet series, which ran during the shutdown. She also programmed world premieres from artists such as Kyle Abraham (An Untitled Love) and Emily Johnson, who premiered her overnight, site-specific work And Then A Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing At Stars in 2019 through the Dance Center at Calumet Park in East Side. 

In a press announcement, the Dance Center noted that the process for determining how to select Chenoweth’s replacement is underway. The Center’s fall series will be announced shortly.