The 2020 fall arts season looks a lot different than it has in years past, for the obvious reason. But even if gallery attendance is restricted and many performance venues remain shuttered, there are a ton of great writers, performers, visual artists, and multigenre talents to catch up with, no matter what stage of personal shutdown you’re in right now. We asked some curators, along with Reader staff, to tell us what they’re excited about right now. Obviously this is a very small slice of what’s out there, and we’ll be trying to cover as much of it as possible in the months to come, just as we have for the past 50 years.
This week, we’re highlighting theater (including Black playwrights you should know more about), dance, music, and pop-up performances and activism. Next week, we’ll be focusing on galleries and visual arts.
Some of the performances are live, some of them are livestreamed. (In the case of the playwrights to watch, you can read some of them on the page while you’re waiting to catch them on the stage.) But all of it wouldn’t be happening without the grit and gumption that keeps Chicago’s artists going in good times and bad.
Theatrical productions to stream (Kerry Reid)
When the shutdown first hit, many companies moved to put archival content online. But over the past several months, we’ve seen more pieces created exclusively for the screen, along with strong suggestions that this way of working won’t go away for local theaters, even once it’s safe to gather in live venues again. Here are a few that seem particularly intriguing to me:
Run the Beast Down
Dystopia? We’re soaking in it! But if you can’t get enough, Strawdog can help you scratch that itch. Titas Halder’s 2017 solo play follows Charlie, a London stock trader who has lost his job, his girlfriend—and possibly his mind. Haunted by an urban fox, Charlie goes on a vigilante quest against capitalism and “the Beast.” Elly Green directs Gage Wallace in this thriller for Strawdog. 10/2-10/25, strawdog.org
45 Plays for America’s First Ladies
Several years ago, during the last worst presidency, the Neo-Futurists unveiled 43 Plays for 43 Presidents (a show that subsequently ran in Atlanta and earned the distinction of being the only Neo-Futurist show attended by a former president: Jimmy Carter). Now they’ve decided to “remember the ladies,” as Abigail Adams (the second FLOTUS) once advised her husband. Neo-Futurists from Chicago, New York, and San Francisco join in this exploration of the “honorary” office of First Lady and how it connects with the marginalized communities that built the nation. 10/8-11/2, neofuturists.org
Clock Productions takes its annual festival online with songs, stories, original scenes, and spoken-word pieces created by seven artists and directed by Kayla V. White. The offerings travel through the seasons while illustrating the spectrum of “Black Pain, Black Fear, Black Anger, Black Hope, and yes, BLACK JOY!” 10/16-10/31, clockproductionschicago.com
(Kerry Reid is the Reader theater and dance editor.)
Dance performances (Irene Hsiao)
The Dance Center of Columbia College offers help for the hungry with a full-to-bursting menu of virtual workshops and performances. They not only range over many genres of dance but address aspects of production and self-preservation in pandemic times and beyond, including lighting design, financial wellbeing, contracts, pedagogy, and more. A $20 donation gets you everything on the “dessert” menu—performances by dancers Po’Chop, Nejla Yatkin, and Jumaane Taylor. Eat it all through 10/26 at dance.colum.edu.
Steps in the Garden
Get a last breath outdoors before winter with Winifred Haun & Dancers’ tour of the gardens of Oak Park’s Cheney Mansion with dances created for intimate viewing entirely outdoors. Each is presented with masked dancers for a limited audience within physical distancing guidelines. For those preferring more distance and more time, catch it again on livestream later in the month. 10/4 at 4 PM, Cheney Mansion Garden, 220 N. Euclid Ave., Oak Park; also livestreamed 10/17 at 5 PM. $20-$44, winifredhaun.org
Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre
The company moves its annual “America/Americans” series online, with performances of artistic director Wilfredo Rivera’s American Catracho and Monique Haley’s Root, as well as new works exploring gender identity, the pandemic, and social justice with contributions by Shannon Alvis, Katlin Bourgeois, and A. Raheim White, with music by Joe Cerqua. Livestreamed from Studio5 Performing Arts Center on 10/25, then rebroadcast 11/5-11/7 at 2 PM and 7 PM. $30-$50, cerquarivera.org.
(Irene Hsiao is a frequent Reader contributor.)
Playwrights to know (Reginald Edmund)
It’s been a few weeks since the passing of the legendary Steve Carter, the first playwright in residence at Victory Gardens. I feel so blessed to say that in the current wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m seeing a new vanguard of Black writers emerge whose work is unabashedly BLACK. These artists are vastly different in their artistic aesthetic, and deserve to be recognized for their genius.
Nambi E. Kelley: Her play Native Son, which was produced at the Court Theatre in 2014, is to this day one of the most stunning works I’ve seen on the Chicago stage. There is something epic and uncomfortable inside of every one of her plays. (Kelley also wrote an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Jazz, which has not yet been produced in Chicago, and has served as a writer on Showtime’s The Chi.)
- J. Nicole Brooks: A genderqueer woman whose work carries inside of it a strong, brewing Afro-Futurism. I find that her writing is always striking and eerily beautiful. (Most recent production: Her Honor Jane Byrne at Lookingglass Theatre.)
Osiris Khepera: I find that anything they write is daring, wild, and imaginative, and pushes audiences into territory that we haven’t explored often on the stage. (Khepera won a 2017 DCASE individual artist grant for The Legendary Nana Yaa Asantewaa and the War of the Golden Stool, or, They Is African Royalty Living Off Fuckin’ Wilson.)
Loy Webb: She has a powerful brilliant voice that I gravitated towards immediately, with a bold perspective. She had a meteoric rise first with her Jeff Award-winning play The Light that went from Chicago to off Broadway and then followed it up with her Jeff-nominated play His Shadow at 16th Street Theater, directed by Wardell Julius Clark. Now her first short film, Boyega Brides, is blowing up the Internet. I think she might be unstoppable and I’m looking forward to seeing what is next for her trajectory.
Mercedes White: Another important and often overlooked voice in Chicago. I always find that I am taken in by her writing. She’s masterful at building the worlds that her characters live in and that in turn pulls in her audiences. Definitely an artist who I feel more people should support. (White is a cofounder and resident playwright of Definition Theatre, which produced her play Genesis in 2014; The River Jordan received a 2017 reading with Definition in partnership with Steppenwolf’s LookOut series.)
Hana Anderson: Playwright, visual artist, poet, she does it all and does it proudly for the south side of Chicago. Her work has a heart to it that lets you get a peek at the beauty of the community that she calls home.
Kristiana Rae Colón: Her writing is richly multilayered, bursting with theatricality, lyricism, and always mission-driven. I feel that if I didn’t include her, this list would be remiss. Her work isn’t trying to make mainstream audiences comfortable and that is one reason out of many why she’s a part of this new vanguard. (Colón, who is also a founder of the Let Us Breathe Collective, won a Non-Equity Jeff Award for Tilikum, produced by Sideshow Theatre in 2018.)
Tsehaye Geralyn Hebert: Ambitious in every way is how I would describe the writing of Herbert. Full of color and richly drawn characters, I find that her writing is one that pulls you in instantly. Her writing is always soul-healing, and in these times that is a gift for a writer to possess. There is a real, deep intelligence that is rooted in her work.
B.B. Browne: Her writing is passionate and fearless. I would call her writing a wild child that is constantly evolving, yet very much rooted in the betterment of the community that she is a part of. Her play Chicago Theatre Godd@mn!!! was smart and witty, and at the same time cut sharply at the dirty inner politics that play out in the Chicago theater community. I think she’s definitely going to be a voice for this next generation that we should take note of.
Guadalís Del Carmen: Her writing proudly bridges her Black and Latinx culture with stunning lyrical imagery, which also brought her voice to the attention of the Kilroys List. I think her writing is beautiful and more theaters in Chicago should step up to the plate to produce her. (Del Carmen’s play Not for Sale was produced by UrbanTheater Company in 2018.)
Aaron Mays: I find that everything he writes is thought-provoking and very much plays for the now. There is something deeply heartfelt within every play that he writes. I find myself really appreciating the world and the characters that he creates.
(Reginald Edmund is a Chicago-based playwright and the cofounder of Black Lives Black Words.)
Livestream music—plus cocktails! (Salem Collo-Julin)
Experimental Sound Studio
ESS has been a leading force in livestreaming concerts this year. They’ll continue their Option series throughout the fall: a curated weekly music salon featuring experimental musicians talking about and playing their work. Upcoming highlights include Terrie Ex on 10/5 and Zeena Parkins on 10/26. ess.org
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
CSO is starting a subscription livestream series, Sessions, in October in addition to some free streaming offerings. cso.org/tv/
Adults Night Out: The Great Pumpkin Glow
If you’re looking for a date night with fall stuff surrounding you, this 10/29 adults-only event at Lincoln Park Zoo sounds great: pumpkin walk, haunted trail, seasonal cocktails, and whatever animals like to hang out in their outside enclosures at night, making fun of your outfit choices. lpzoo.org
(Salem Collo-Julin is the Reader listings coordinator.)
Art, activism, and community (Leah Munsey)
Over the summer, with shows suspended indefinitely and uprisings happening nationally, I started seeking new ways to channel my skills as production manager. I went to protests looking for an organizing home, not anticipating that I would be able to experience so many live performances along the way. I attended violin vigils for Elijah McClain, saw voguing on an ad hoc runway at the Pride Without Prejudice March, and enjoyed the songs of countless singers, guitarists, drummers, horn players, and musicians of all kinds at many other actions.
I connected with organizers in my neighborhood and had the opportunity to help them plan a rally. We wanted to make the event joyful and celebratory, so we made a point of booking musicians to keep the atmosphere light. Chicago rapper Show You Suck DJed between guest speakers, and we brought in a whole 15-piece marching band to play a set. It was an absolute pleasure to host those performers, and the closest to “normal” I had felt in ages.
The best thing I’ve learned about community organizers in Chicago is that they tend to know how to have a good time while getting the work done, so when the next action pops up, I highly recommend checking it out. There have been a ton of great visual arts events cropping up in response to the uprisings as well. PO Box Collective in Rogers Park has been doing beautiful memorials, Axis Lab in Uptown has been providing mutual aid while hosting pop-up galleries, and Alt Space and the Love Fridge have tapped artists to create eye-catching designs for their free community markets.
Though my new favorite place to find live performance is in the streets, I understand that is not for everyone. Folks looking for something a little more low-key can catch Show You Suck DJing from his front porch in Logan Square most days. He also appears Fridays at 7 PM on Shut In Gamer’s show Casual Couch Hangs on Twitch. Fans of the Paper Machete can get their fix by checking out our avian op-ed columnist Chad the Bird’s podcast, which drops every Saturday. (I also happen to know that Chad is scheming on an even bigger project, so stay tuned to his pages for details.) And if you’re pining for the comedic musical stylings of the Populist Pugilist Pianist of the Paper Machete, Bill Larkin, you can catch him every Saturday on Facebook at 9 PM streaming his original show, “Parody Song Improv.”
(Leah Munsey is the production manager and coproducer of the Paper Machete, a weekly live magazine which, in the Beforetimes, ran every Saturday at 3 PM out of the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. The Machete is currently on hiatus due to COVID. She was also the lead producer for the Machete Blowout at Sleeping Village and Christmas by Melania at the Uptown Underground.) v