Chicago Performs is a new annual event hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art that spotlights exciting local artists while showcasing the city’s rich and vital creative landscape. Envisioned as a way to provide a national platform to Chicago artists as they reach the next phase of their careers, the inaugural edition of the two-day event (which takes place September 15 and 16) welcomes three artists from across the city: theater artist Derek Lee McPhatter, visual and performance artist Bimbola Akinbola, and choreographer Erin Kilmurray.
In her curator’s note, the MCA’s Tara Aisha Willis says that while Akinbola, McPhatter, and Kilmurray create using different mediums, their Chicago Performs works all address questions that face us all in the complicated, post-pandemic world of 2022: “What is resilience and what are strategies for creating it—in the moment amongst each other when we gather, and when we imagine potential futures?” But while each performance touches on challenges and hardships, they are also united in their fearless embrace of joy and community.
To that extent, Chicago Performs offers all who attend a chance to feel the joy themselves. Along with immersing in each artist’s temporary universe—McPhatter’s futuristic rock opera, Kilmurray’s world-building dance performance, and Akinbola’s seven-hour Electric Slide marathon—attendees are invited to attend an artist panel discussion moderated by Tempestt Hazel, take their time exploring the MCA’s galleries (including “Nick Cave: Forothermore,” a career-spanning retrospective of the Chicago artist), enjoy a special happy hour at Marisol Restaurant & Bar, and get their groove on in an explosive closing-night dance party with DJ Sadie Woods.
Read on to meet the talented local artists of Chicago Performs. For more about the festivities, or to purchase a two-day pass for $30 or a single-day pass for $20, visit mcachicago.org/chicagoperforms.
Derek Lee McPhatter
When Chicago theater artist Derek Lee McPhatter looked for inspiration for his new rock opera Water Riot in Beta, he gravitated toward the lakefront park just blocks from his home in Bronzeville. “My project is about water scarcity, and thinking of Lake Michigan as a body of water we need to be connected to in the future, so I [came] out to connect to it as I [wrote].” Along with the lake, the park also offers views of Chicago from its largely white north side to its largely Black south side—a visual reminder of the precarious relationship between man and nature, and the city’s ongoing struggles with racial injustice and segregation. Those themes converge in Water Riot, the first installation of a triptych of works called Nightqueen, which McPhatter began developing as a 2021 Creative Capital Awardee. “[It’s] taking the question of the water crisis and communities of color, and fascism, and social-media networks, and kind of combining all of those to tell an epic, multi-universe kind of story,” he says.
The Ohio native has become known for creating epic storylines, and more specifically, for making work that engages diverse communities while focusing on the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, and technology. He’s brought that perspective to theatrical, television, and digital projects from New York to Los Angeles. In Chicago, he’s written five musicals for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Lyric Unlimited division, served as a 2020 resident playwright with Chicago Dramatists, and received awards from the Chicago Digital Media Production Fund and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), among other organizations.
Despite its heavy subject matter, Water Riot in Beta (which debuts in the MCA’s Edlis Neeson Theater on the evening of September 16) offers a chance for catharsis and celebration. McPhatter taps into a mix of rock, punk, and jazz influences to weave a futuristic tale about Chicago activists who occupy a dam when their access to Lake Michigan is cut off. “From there, we’re going to do a whole bunch of protest songs, a whole lot of rock-band interpersonal drama, and we’re going to have a whole lot of fun,” he says. For McPhatter, “we” is the most important part. “I believe experiencing art in community is one of the most transformative ways to do so,” McPhatter says. “So yes, I’m a writer. Yes, I write things that people can read on their own, but my work works best when we’re experiencing it together.”
Over the past decade, Avondale dance artist, choreographer, and producer Erin Kilmurray has become a pillar of the local dance and performance community. The Columbia College graduate and founder of the popular Fly Honey Show merges her classical training with a DIY aesthetic honed through years of performing in unconventional spaces such as living rooms, rock venues, and nightclubs. Her works center women and queer people, and celebrate freedom, movement, and transgression in a society that often tries to dictate what bodies and gender presentation “should” look like. “I’m quite focused on performance that gives agency, and platform, and space, and empowers women and queer folk,” she says. “I’m always curious about taking that space up, and what we want to do once we have it.”
Kilmurray’s latest work, “The Function,” which she’s presenting at Chicago Performs in a matinee and an evening performance at the MCA’s Edlis Neeson Theater on September 15, directly speaks to that question. She researched and developed the project for more than a year and a half, with the intention to “empower and give agency to the performers to operate the stagecraft tools while also performing their work.” To do so, she collaborated with sound designers, lighting designers, stagecraft professionals, and fellow dancers to refine the concept, and arrived at something that embraces joy, creativity, and self-expression while making the most of any space in which it is performed. “The dancers themselves have huge amounts of freedom to play inside of the terms of the work, so each performance will be slightly different,” she says. “And the way in which the audience gives and receives energy from us will also greatly impact how the dancers decide to execute their performance as well.”
The Electric Slide is a staple of celebration and togetherness. Rooted in Black culture, the dance is known to get people of all ages up moving together in the spirit of joy and fun. Inspired by a short performance of the dance at a Black performing arts symposium she attended in Arizona, Chicago artist Bimbola Akinbola wondered about the possibilities of extending the dance beyond the few minutes of a single song to a period of several hours. That led her to create You Gotta Know It: A Durational Moving Meditation on (Black) Collectivity, Labor, and Joy. “It’s really motivated by questions around ‘how can we use a shared choreography?’” she says. “You can get a bunch of strangers in a room who all know this dance, especially in Black space. What can it tell us about being together and about being in community?”
The Rogers Park artist, who is also an assistant professor of performance studies at Northwestern Univeristy, is often motivated to make performance pieces to explore her innate curiosity about the world, as well as concepts of queerness, identity, and belonging. “I have too many questions and curiosities for them to be contained in one medium,” she explains. “There is a way that performance allows me to address questions that I can’t sometimes address through painting, or through drawing, or through writing.” She also finds inspiration in Chicago’s DIY arts culture. “In Chicago it just feels possible to be an artist on your own terms and not have to be relying on institutions to make the things you want to make with the people you want to make it with,” she says.
Those elements coalesce in You Gotta Know It. Taking place in the MCA Commons, Bimbola and her ensemble of Black woman dancers will dance the Electric Slide for seven hours accompanied by a soundtrack by Elise Hernandez that includes a mix of music, poetry, and ambient sound. “I’m really thinking about disorientation and orientation in this piece, and being together, and being in community as a labor. [And] joy as a jumping off point for thinking about grief and frustration and all of the other things that come from being in community.” That idea of community extends to the audience as well—like all the best dance parties, everyone is welcome to participate.