Black-and-white image of Marvin Tate in a white shirt open at the neck, with an untied bowtie around his neck. He is wearing a dark hat and holding an empty birdcage
Marvin Tate Credit: Justin T. Jones

When Chicago poet, sculptor, and musician Marvin Tate was in elementary school, he had a terrible stutter. To help him, his older sister gave him a poem to practice reading aloud. The poem was “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. That’s the one that begins with “We real cool. We/Left school.” and ends with “We/Jazz June. We/Die soon.” “Reading it helped in slowing down my stutter,” Tate explains. It also wormed deep into his ear and his heart.

One day at school he spontaneously shouted out the poem to the amazement of “a bevy of classmates, teachers, and passerbys.” Fifty-plus years later, Tate still vividly remembers the applause he got, and how it changed him. “I kept stuttering,” Tate recalls, “but now I had confidence”—and the poem opened up something in his mind. “I fell in love with words right then and there.” That was the moment that Tate, who would go on to become a published poet (Schoolyard of Broken Dreams and The Amazing Mister Orange) and multiple winner of slam poetry bouts in the 90s, found his calling.

Tate, who fronted the experimental poetry/funk band D-Settlement in the 90s and early 2000s, also remembers when music became important to him. “After my grandmother’s funeral, during her wake,” Tate remembers, “all of the grown-ups were in the front room reminiscing and playing records. [That’s] when I heard a very scratchy, primal voice coming from the record player.” Ten-year-old Tate was used to hearing pop tunes and Motown. But this voice was different. “It screamed. It shouted.” It cut deeper and pulled from a different place in his soul. “I stood mesmerized,” Tate recalls. “The voice was that of Howlin’ Wolf. . . .  That rawness and sense of immediacy stayed in my creative DNA.” That’s when Tate realized music was as important to him as poetry.

Tate has in recent years become known for his outsider art, in particular a series of bird sculptures fashioned out of burnt pieces of wood, created during the pandemic lockdown. Tate felt the tug to sculpture at the same time as he felt drawn to poetry and music. “My oldest brother made toy soldiers out of aluminum foil, tape, and bobby pins.” Tate was amazed that he “could paint a gesture or a complete picture with found and recyclable objects,” and has spent his life imitating his older brother, making art from cast-offs and found objects.

Laughing Song: A Walking Dream
7/30-8/28: Sat-Sun 3-7 PM (dinner included). The four-hour ambulatory performance begins at YMEN Center, 1241 S. Pulaski, theatre-y.com, free

These moments and moments like them, taken from Tate’s life, are woven into the script for Theatre Y’s show Laughing Song: A Walking Dream. Written by Tate and collaborator Evan Hill, and devised by the Theatre Y ensemble, Laughing Song will be staged at various sites in the three-mile walk through North Lawndale that makes up this year’s show.

“We’ve created a route out of spaces in the neighborhood that represent something to [Tate],” explains the show’s director, Theatre Y artistic director Melissa Lorraine. “So we stop at a boarded school that reminds him [of his elementary school] but isn’t and a landscape with the city and the tracks that means something to him about his mother’s longing for the city when picking cotton [in her childhood].” Lorraine goes on to describe the show as “a dream of [Tate’s] childhood through his actual childhood neighborhood.”

Formed 16 years ago in Logan Square, Theatre Y specializes in a street version of promenade theater in which the audience walks through a set route, in a neighborhood or several neighborhoods, encountering performances along the way. Last year, Theatre Y’s YOU ARE HERE: The Emerald Camino Project, took audiences on a walk through 12 different neighborhoods along Chicago’s “Emerald Necklace,” a series of parks and boulevards, some of them designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and William Le Baron Jenney, stretching from Jackson Park to Lincoln Park. In one moment in 2019’s Camino show, a dance was staged on the bank of the lagoon in Humboldt Park.

This year’s show focuses on the neighborhood Theatre Y now calls home, North Lawndale. “We will be stopping at Stone Temple Church,” Lorraine explains. “We will be stopping at the former Sears complex, and at the [Homan] Rails Farm on an abandoned train line, Boler Park, the underpass on Independence Avenue, and the Chess Circle on Douglas Boulevard.”

Tate first became involved with Theatre Y when he was invited to be one of the artists involved in last summer’s Camino Project. “We featured Marvin as one of the artists in Logan Square,” Lorraine tells me, adding that it was during that production that Tate started talking about events from his childhood in North Lawndale.

When Theatre Y decided to relocate to North Lawndale, Tate became more deeply involved with the theater. “We got him involved in our new youth program,” Lorraine continues, “teaching spoken word to a group of young people.” They are also discussing having him create installations for their as-yet-unbuilt theater in North Lawndale, and they made him a resident artist. When it came time to put together a show for the summer of 2022, Tate was asked to be part of the team.

The initial inspiration for the project was not to create a piece about Tate. Instead, Tate and Hill looked to the life of the first African American recording artist, George W. Johnson. In the 1890s and 1900s, Johnson became known for a series of recordings he made back when phonography was a novelty and recordings were made on cylinders, not disks.

Hill, the dramaturg of this year’s Camino Project, had come across Johnson’s “The Laughing Song” while researching for his doctor of fine arts in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at Yale, and approached Lorraine with the idea of using Johnson’s story as the starting point for a performance in North Lawndale.

Johnson’s life was in many ways emblematic of 19th-century African American life in the decades before and after the end of slavery. Born a slave in Virginia in 1846, Johnson was freed as a boy but still worked as a servant and companion to a rich white farmer’s son before moving to New York City in his early 20s. In the 1870s and 80s Johnson made his living as a street musician, whistling tunes, often at ferry terminals, for the coins people tossed. He was discovered in the 1890s by talent scouts from two different recording companies—Charles Marshall of the New York Phonograph Company and Victor Emerson of the New Jersey Phonograph Company—and was asked to record for them.

Street musicians, especially ones who whistled, were in demand. Recording technology was still very primitive then. There were no microphones yet—performers spoke directly into a horn connected to a needle that cut grooves into a wax cylinder—and not all sounds were equally audible for these devices. As Hill explains it, a pipe organ was hard to record; a concertina was not. A full orchestra was too spread out to record easily; a single person whistling near the horn was easy.

Also, a way had not been invented yet to make multiple copies of a recording; each cylinder had to be recorded separately and as such was a unique artifact. If a record company, for example, sold six copies of a song, the performer had to sing the song six times. A street musician like Johnson was more willing to spend all day in a cramped recording studio singing the same song over and over again than a recognized professional singer, who was used to making money singing to crowds in a theater or cabaret. Johnson was paid 20 cents for each two-minute recording he made, and was believed to have made 25,000 to 50,000 individual recordings in his lifetime.

Tate was initially offered the role of Johnson, an offer Tate eagerly took. “I thought ‘This is a really good one,’” Tate tells me. “I thought it was very challenging to immerse myself in this gentleman’s life and I thought it would be a good task to tackle.”

But in the development process the show metamorphosed to become about both Tate and Johnson. “We’ve sort of woven together the two men’s lives and experiences and skills,” Lorraine explains, “and we are exploring both of them in motion through [North Lawndale].”

Tate couldn’t be more pleased. Storytelling is hardwired into all facets of Tate’s artistic life. When he was young, he and his brother Melvin and his cousin Jerome formed an informal storytelling troupe they called “The Kooky Boys.” “Melvin collected rocks, Jerome gathered sticks, and we would hide in the gangways [in our neighborhood], while I sang and made up stories. It was the beginnings of my days of being a storyteller.”

In a way, Tate never outgrew being a Kooky Boy. And it’s a good thing, too.