When veteran film and theater producer Pemon Rami was coming of age in Hyde Park in the 1960s, he didn’t have to travel to indulge his budding obsession with theater. Alongside other fledgling artists including Robert Townsend and Paul Butler, Rami honed his craft on stages that dotted the south side.
“When I left for L.A. in 1982, there were nine theaters on the south side,” Rami says. “When I came back 25 years later, most of them were gone.”
Saturday marked an important point in the pendulum swing back toward the theatrical bustle of Rami’s youth. The opening of Washington Park’s Green Line Performing Arts Center at 329 E. Garfield adds roughly 6,600 square feet of art space to the neighborhood, and builds on a foundation companies such as Free Street Theater, Congo Square, eta creative arts, Grown Folks Stories, and Court Theatre have labored to maintain for years.
Once a quartet of dilapidated storefronts, the Green Line Center—designed by Morris Architects Planners and defined by canvas-white walls and exposed brick—now houses an 80-seat black box theater as well space for rehearsals, a full lighting grid, and a studio that can host staged readings and film screenings.
“The south side is like Florence in the Renaissance,” Mark Kelly, the city’s commissioner for the department of cultural affairs and special events, told a packed room full of artists and patrons who turned out for the opening. Well, maybe not quite yet. “You go to Hottix and there’s 85 theaters on the north side listed,” Kelly added. “There’s four on the south side.”
For veteran director Ron OJ Parson, the reason for that imbalance is obvious: “Low income neighborhoods, people of color—they don’t get the same attention as places with more money and less people of color.”
It’s been almost 40 years since a new, dedicated theater space opened in the Washington Square, Hyde Park, or Woodlawn communities. Hyde Park’s Court Theatre opened in 1981, three years after the 1978 launch of the eta creative arts foundation. While Free Street, Congo Square, and the storytelling space in the back of Hyde Park’s Silver Room store followed, Kelly’s Hottix reference put the disparity between the north and south sides in stark terms.
“There is no shortage of talent on the south side, but there’s been a lack of collective investment. There’s been a lack of access,’ says Lori Berko, deputy director of the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life Initiative. The Green Line Performing Arts Center is the latest component of that ambitious initiative, envisioned by artist and activist Theaster Gates and dedicated to transforming Washington Park into a mecca for artists, arts educators, and arts entrepreneurs.
The Green Line Center is an anchor of the Arts Block, the stretch of Garfield between Prairie Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive. The Green Line sits on the east end. On the west end is the five-year-old Arts Incubator, where an estimated 60,000 people have attended more than 1,200 public programs ranging from yoga classes to woodworking workshops to gallery exhibits.
Silver Room owner Eric Williams, for one, is looking forward to trying out the Green Line space.
“Right now, we do Grown Folks in the back of the store,” Williams says. “It gets pretty crowded. It’ll be nice to have a proper theater with lights and a stage right down the street, where people live. This opens up a whole new world of access.
“I’ve got all kinds of ideas for doing stuff there,” he adds. “I know a lot of people who would live to use this beautiful new space.”
The Green Line Center will also open its existing residency programs to local theater companies, Berko says.
“We haven’t had the space to accommodate residencies of whole theater companies. Now we do,” she says. “We want to build relationships with the artists who are here, and we know that takes time. But we’re dedicated to that. We want to be part of the community. Not just in the community.”
Rami is also enthused—and intrigued by the acoustical challenges. “The el trains are right there,” he says. “I’ll be curious to see how that works with sound design. But it seems like it’ll be an incredible space.”