Getting off at the Bryn Mawr Metra stop, my eyes dart as I searched for a cluster of people on one of the four corner intersections on 71st Street and Jeffery Avenue, the only location given to guests prior to that night. Ticket-buyers were instructed to prepare for “the best housewarming party with a tour,” which still left plenty to the imagination. Walking towards a group of hip and eclectic-looking twenty- to thirty-somethings outfitted with backpacks and bikes, I understand that if this evening is to be in any way productive, enjoyable, or even somehow transformative, I have to exercise trust.
This group had come together for the Chicago Home Theater Festival’s (CHTF) South Shore event, an event which boasted a selection of local artists and performers and promised to be a night of renewal by inviting “strangers into each other’s homes to share an intimate meal, experience transformative art, and build intentional community across lines of difference,” according to CHTF’s website. Established in 2010 as a space for boundary-testing art and critical social conversations, the Home Theater Festival reached Chicago in 2012, where it’s spread further: this year’s events numbered ten, in neighborhoods ranging from Rogers Park down to Greater Grand Crossing. It originated as a community-building program that highlights often marginalized narratives: those of artists of color, women, femmes, immigrants, LGBTQ+ populations, and artists with disabilities. By bridging these narratives through the nuclear nature of a home, CHTF advertises an entirely new dimension of accessibility.
After a few harried introductions between participants old and new, the tour guide, Sam, rallies our small group of amateur anthropologists, art enthusiasts, and urban adventurers for a walking tour through the Bryn Mawr section of South Shore. Taking on the cohesion of children being led by an elementary school teacher, we venture towards our first stop just a street or two away, the Jeffery Theater. This 1923 theater, as Sam explained, is a South Shore staple, originally a Neoclassical vaudeville and movie house and later a full-blown movie theater operated by the Warner Brothers in the late 1930s.
As an older woman tells me about her son’s upcoming participation in tonight’s program and two Bronzeville residents beside me discuss the neighborhood’s changes over the years, I feel more attuned than alienated. This isn’t a kitschy tour; it is a group of Chicago residents deeply invested in this cohesively fragmented city, invested in reaching across those very lines of difference that become apparent when people from different neighborhoods and backgrounds come together in an act of discovery. I reveal more about myself—where I’m from, where I live, where my interests lie—to strangers who do the same. This very loose structure, which at first terrified me as a newcomer, becomes a sort of leveling field. The potentially awkward situation of having to introduce yourself to strangers who you will share an entire night with becomes, instead, funny and welcoming because of everyone’s open-mindedness and warmth. We continue walking through Bryn Mawr, breezing past a residential home constructed by Frank Lloyd Wright and taking pictures by the South Shore Cultural Center—wearing comfortable sneakers was a good choice. Soon, we cross a set of train tracks and reconvene on a neighborhood sidewalk. Once everyone has made it, Sam announces that we will head over to “our” home for the evening, hosted by Aon Global Leader and Teen Living Programs board member LaShana Jackson and visual artist Faheem Majeed. The announcement that there will be s’mores elicits cheers from the weary walking crew.
As we arrive at the house, we are presented with a performance. The porch becomes an impromptu stage as three actresses engage in a piece dissecting “hood girl politics.” They spit hilarious rapid-fire lines at each other, telling the fictionalized stories of women in the neighborhood, resulting in a commentary on the way women’s relationships and bodies are appropriated and discussed in public friendships and family circles. The sudden nature of the performance immediately reels in the group and urges us to understand the space we are about to enter, one in which questions of race and gender are not only valid, but voiced. This shift from exploring the neighborhood’s landmarks turns our consideration inwardas we are ushered inside, instructed to set our coats in the coat closet and make ourselves at home. Elizabeth Axtman, founder of Bad News Women (BNW), an online space which aims to support and affirm black women through social media, further sets the mood by streaming images from the BNW Instagram account. Our hosts offer us dinner: warm pasta and salmon in the kitchen, plenty of varied beverages outside. Perhaps surprisingly, I feel almost completely at home.
The performances kick off with an introduction by one of the curators of the event, LaKeisha Leek, along with a brief review of the evening—an online reading of essays by transdisciplinary artist and writer Maya Mackrandilal, a poetry reading by Somali-American poet Ladan Osman, a performance by vocalist Gira Dahnee, and work by interdisciplinary artist Stephanie Graham and poet Heather “Byrd” Roberts. As more people shuffle in and grab plates of hot food, the artists perform pieces that speak truthfully about the night’s overarching theme: celebrating women of color whose work, according to the CHTF website, “in some form, represent manifestos which by identifying personal and familiar narratives perform womanhood and cultural heritage.” I listen to Ladan Osman’s incisive and lovely poems about growing up as a black woman in Ohio, sway to Gira Dahnee’s grainy vocals and wistful lyrics as she asks us to imagine the experience of being a black woman walking down a street, and laugh to Mackrandilal’s essays about white privilege. I do all of this along with strangers I would now call my friends. Back in the living room, LaKeisha asks us to engage in CHTF’s core tradition by turning to our neighbor and sharing the story of how we got here: an effort to bring to light questions of inclusivity and inaccessibility. I got Lee, a photographer for the festival who just started attending CHTF events in the past month.