Members of the Fehinty African Theatre Ensemble at the 2017 Diaspora Dialogues. Photo courtesy of Fehinty African Theatre Ensemble.

All the City’s a Stage

A non-comprehensive guide to South Side theater

The South Side has a rich and deep cultural history often characterized by ambition and innovation in performance. From classic playwrights such as Oscar Brown Jr., who penned ten musicals in addition to his activism and work in poetry and songwriting, to the eta Creative Arts Center, which has been staging productions in South Shore since 1971 and operating as a hub for original theatre and art, there’s no shortage of opportunities for audiences to engage with this legacy. Yet mainstream reviewers and audiences typically focus on the downtown and North Side theatre scenes. This focus creates a cycle of reinforcement where those venues get attention, and the attention sets them up for recognition and support denied venues and groups working in other parts of the city. This divide was highlighted by Free Street Theater artistic director Coya Paz in an article on review coverage published at the end of January in the Chicago Reader, and later backed up by a spreadsheet breaking down reviews from the Tribune by geography. Of thirty reviews included in the dataset—the most recent reviews on the Tribune’s website at the time—only two step outside the downtown/North Side corridor or the suburbs, and then only to the University of Chicago’s campus. 

The conversation around this dataset has followed predictable channels, ranging from assertions that there simply aren’t venues on the South Side (aside from the couple that do get regular coverage), or that reviewers focus on venues that are members of the League of Chicago Theaters. While it is an important organization, membership in the League is not based on any particular standard of professionalism. Besides, the League itself lists twelve South Side member theaters, or six times as many as appeared in the dataset. These arguments, as is often the case with responses to criticism that draws attention to blindspots in mainstream media, work better as post-hoc justifications rather than genuine explanations. 

For theater reviewers and audiences interested in everything the city has on offer, here’s a non-comprehensive overview of South Side venues and ensembles you can check out and follow.

Venues

Beverly Arts Center

2407 W. 111th St. beverlyartcenter.org

This Beverly/Morgan Park-based venue has been around since 1967 and hosts productions that run the gamut from dance, music, and theater to film and the visual arts. In addition to a varied and full calendar of events and productions, they take the education portion of their mission seriously. With a school of fine arts, summer camps for youth, and school outreach campaigns, they engage with their community as much as their audiences engage with their performances. Their recent, intimate production of Pulitzer Prize–nominated Love Letters went up for Chicago Theater Week. Check out their upcoming performance of Next to Normal, a musical exploration of a family coping with a mother struggling with bipolar disorder, running from April 16–19.

Court Theatre

5545 S. Ellis Ave. courttheatre.org

The professional theatre of the University of Chicago, Court has been performing the classics since 1955 and is consistently the one South Side venue to get attention from the rest of the city. Any given season is likely to see representation from the traditional canon as well as modern classics and contemporary works that engage directly with that canon. They’re currently in the middle of staging August Wilson’s Century Cycle; King Hedley II opened their 2019/2020 season, and Two Trains Running will be opening 2020/2021. Court does some community engagement with discounted tickets for students and youth, as well as a reading series of plays by artists of color. 

Harold Washington Cultural Center

4701 S. King Dr. broadwayinbronzeville.com

The Bronzeville-based Harold Washington Cultural Center is a hub for top-notch theater and music performances as well as a community center. Born of an idea (originated by the eponymous mayor) that spent ten years in development after the initial groundbreaking, the sixteen-year-old venue serves as home base for Broadway in Bronzeville, the tap dance collective M.A.D.D. Rhythms, and the Sammy Dyer School of Dance and Theater, among others. In addition to serving as a venue for theater, dance, film, and more, the venue supports extensive community engagement programs by providing studio space and training for aspiring artists. See it for yourself by checking out Desi Alexander’s Tired of Adulting Tour when it stops in on May 9.

eta Creative Arts

7558 S. South Chicago Ave. etacreativearts.org

Dedicated to producing and supporting work that “tells our story,” the venue has “Protest” as the theme for its 2020 schedule. With a new executive director, Kai El’ Zabar, who was installed in June of last year, eta is poised to close out a half-century of work focused on authentically presenting the lives of African-American people. They offer summer camps and classes for youth and adults, as well as providing gallery space for visual artists. September will bring a six-week run of an updated My Vagina. My Voice. If you can’t wait for their upcoming performances, swing by their regular open mic events on the first and third Monday of the month or, beginning in April, their Easy Wednesday events with live jazz.

Free Street Theater

Storyfront Theater, 4645 S. Ashland Ave. freestreet.org

Headquartered at the Pulaski Park fieldhouse in West Town, Free Street Theater has strong ties to the South Side, including a second venue in Back of the Yards, the Storyfront, that turns a former refrigerator repair shop into an intimate cultural hub. The theater also regularly puts on performances in city parks. As the name implies, admission to Free Street shows is free, or pay what you can, and has been for more than fifty years. Founded after the 1968 riots with a mission of fighting segregation in the arts, Free Street’s history in the city is a narrative rife with drama of its own. Now, in addition to developing work focused on Chicago and underrepresented artists in the city, Free Street also facilitates difficult conversations for institutions and communities and offers workshops for developing skills such as artistic direct actions. They celebrated turning fifty with 50 in 50, a set of performances in every ward of the city all on the same day. (See “Land of the Free,” also in this issue.)

Green Line Performing Arts Center

329 E. Garfield Blvd. arts.uchicago.edu/apl/glpac

If you want a venue that still has that quintessential new-theater smell, the Green Line Performing Arts Center is here for you. Newly opened by UofC in 2018 as part of the arts block in Washington Park, the space supports everything from theater and dance to a regular art vendor fair and knitting groups. With onsite rehearsal space, they host workshop space and artist residencies for theater (including an “ensemble in residency”) and artists. Their first ensemble residency, featuring Fehinty African Theatre Ensemble (whom you can read about below), just wrapped up in early March, but their tenure featured Friday night dance parties and the 2020 Diaspora Monologues. In addition to the residencies, they offer employment and training opportunities to local residents through “stipend-based training in technical theater, including sound, lighting, and scenic design, and front-of-house and back-of-house management.” Workshops and talks are common events, so it’s worth keeping an eye on their full, and eclectic, event calendar.

Ensembles

Beverly Theatre Guild

2153 W. 111th St. beverlytheatreguild.org

Founded in 1963 and one of the cofounders of the Beverly Arts Center, this guild currently calls the Baer Theatre at Morgan Park Academy home. Their typical season has three productions, often tackling a variety of popular, award-winning fare. Their 2019/2020 season is a comedy sandwich with musical bread: They opened with Urinetown: The Musical and followed it with the absurdist comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile. They’ll close out their season in May with Matilda, the musical based on the beloved children’s book of the same name. They’re often lauded for providing a downtown theater experience at significantly more accommodating prices, and you can pick up season ticket packages for an even better deal. 

Collaboraction

collaboraction.org

This Otto Award-winning ensemble is explicitly focused on social issues and has been turning that focus into impressive theater for twenty-three years. While they’re currently housed at Kennedy-King College, they get out and into the community, staging performances at a variety of venues around town and appearing in parks, too. They focus on theater, dance, and spoken word performances, and if you can’t make it out to one of their performances, they’re available for hire to create a custom experience for your event. 

Fehinty African Theatre Ensemble

fehintytheatre.org

The first ensemble in residence at the Green Line Performing Arts Center, Fehinty is building bridges and featuring stories from Africa and its diaspora. Founded in 2004, the group is the first theatre ensemble in the city comprised entirely of immigrants from Africa, and that identity has suffused its journey and growth in the time since. When the group lost their original performing space at a two-story African restaurant in Uptown, they adapted by staging rogue productions of African folktales in the parks. That work led to official backing from the Park District’s Night Out in the Parks program.

Warmth and enthusiasm for the ensemble and its work sizzles off artistic director Teju Adesia as she describes Fehinty’s history and current work. The residency at the Green Line Performing Arts Center is its first major engagement with the South Side. According to Adesia, the ability to expand the group’s audience and connect with creatives who might not make the trek to the North Side has been one of the highlights of the residency. She says it’s been “great to offer things directly to the community.” 

The ensemble’s recent work includes Fatty Bum Bum, a play written in Nigerian pidgin; Va-Na-Ku-La diaspora monologues; and a series of Friday night dance parties featuring music of the diaspora, ranging from reggae to Afro-pop. Even with the residency wrapping up, Fehinty is going to stay in touch with its new South Side audience—perhaps, Teju posited, by returning to its roots and coming to the parks. 

When speaking to the ensemble’s future, Teju captured the spirit underpinning so much work happening on the South Side: she pointed out that Fehinty doesn’t have a staff and most of the people involved in the ensemble are engaging out of love for the culture, the art form, and the community. “The people we’ve been able to engage with makes it worth continuing the company. But we need support. Support is really important,” she said. 

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If that whets your appetite for South Side theater and performance, do yourself a favor and branch out to some of the unique and innovative opportunities available as well. Open mics, storytelling sessions, and performance in unexpected spaces are staples across South Side neighborhoods. Last year’s arts issue has profiles for several arts-and-events spaces you can use as a starting point for a pivot into exploring the wide range of creative endeavors thriving here.

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Jessica Eanes is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago. She last wrote for the Weekly in November about a book on the history of Black politics and education reform in Chicago

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