A Year of Living Dangerously | Our Town | Chicago Reader

A Year of Living Dangerously 

Redmoon Theater touts its temporary expansion into Humboldt Park

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By Cheryl Ross

On a recent Sunday afternoon Redmoon Theater paraded through the streets of Humboldt Park in full costume as neighborhood children waved puppets and a marching band played "When the Saints Go Marching In." Neighbors watching the spectacle from porches or front gates were urged to come see a free show. Adults and children waved at the merrymakers, joined in the parade, smiled, or watched silently with steely eyes as the group charged by.

The parade was a lead-in to Redmoon's summer "spectacle," Long Live the King (the King Is Dead). According to the puppet troupe's press release, the 40-minute production is "a poetic comedy about the nobility of the human spirit" that shows actors in "the timeless and beautiful tasks of daily life." This was Redmoon's special performance of the play for Humboldt Park, which for now is the new home of its set-building and rehearsal space. In late March the all-white company, which had resided in Logan Square at Point and Armitage, moved to a 7,000-square-foot one-story brick building at 3839 W. Chicago, in the midst of a community at least one neighbor referred to as a drug-infested ghetto. (Redmoon's press release even boasts that it's relocated to "the heart of North Lawndale," though that neighborhood's northern border lies a mile south of the new space.) The company rehearses its show outdoors, on a large concrete slab across from a barbecue joint and an auto-towing service. According to Jim Lasko, one of Redmoon's artistic directors, the move was purely practical: the company needed cheaper and larger digs, and this new space is almost five times larger than their building in Logan Square. The company also liked the space for other reasons. "It was on the corner. It has an empty lot next to it. It has an empty lot behind it."

Redmoon receives grant money, but it's not looking for a posh location in a trendy neighborhood. "It's not our goal to have a big warehouse space in the middle of Lincoln Park where we get to make our stuff and then put on shows," says Lasko. "That's not what we're doing." The troupe's mission statement speaks of making "art for the community" and "community around the art"; the members hope that their spectacles "occasion community-based celebration, bringing together audiences and participants of all ages, races, educational backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses." The Redmoon company knew race would be an issue in its current move, just as it was eight years ago when it began operations in a primarily Latino area in Logan Square. Lasko and Blair Thomas, Redmoon's founder and other artistic director, say the company now feels comfortable in that neighborhood, where it still runs two community outreach programs from a local church. Over the years Thomas and Lasko have made lots of neighborhood contacts, and a community that once questioned their motives, says Lasko, now treats them like family.

Redmoon is working to achieve that same comfort level in Humboldt Park. Thomas recalls the company's tools being stolen only a month after it arrived; Redmoon had to put a security system in the building. Company members have also had racial epithets hurled at them, but Lasko says those were isolated incidents, springing from people who were drunk, "upset for one reason or another," or not "fully there." When asked about alleged incidents of stone and egg throwing, Lasko dismisses the episodes, attributing them to a band of kids who'd been doing it indiscriminately throughout the neighborhood. On the whole neighbors have been very accepting, he says, and in fact the police gave the troupe more static than the residents at first.

Thomas agrees: "We'd have people come out to interview for internships, get stopped by the police, questioned. Police would say usually the only reason white people are in this neighborhood is to buy drugs. So why would you be here?"

Other aspects of the neighborhood have taken some getting used to. Thomas recalls, "There used to be so much yelling and screaming going on in the street. I'd think, What's going on? Is something happening? Actually no, there's nothing happening really. It's just a normal day; it's what's going on. And now I feel completely comfortable. I would come here in the middle of the night to do some work or drop something off or whatever. It doesn't feel any more threatening than Logan Square did."

During Sunday's performance at least 100 people, kids and adults standing or sitting in folding chairs on the sidewalk, watch the outdoor spectacle that evolves around a 20-foot metal tower on a rolling cart, where performers act out life rituals, including a wedding and a funeral. At one point rain begins to spray from a hidden sprinkler on the tower. Some of the kids jump onstage and stomp in the water. When actors wearing huge baby heads emerge, a group of young boys bursts out laughing. Nearby a woman from the neighborhood has found a way to make money from the show, selling snow cones to the sunbaked crowd.

Gregory Graham, 33, watches the show with his four kids and a buddy. He leans over to his friend and asks, "What don't you see?" His friend whispers something unintelligible.

After the show I ask Graham what he and his friend were talking about. "I didn't mean no harm," Graham tells me. "But like I say, there is no black cast here at all. And you know, you're in an all-black neighborhood, and I think this is real nice for them, but I don't know what their meaning behind it is. As far as the play is concerned, no one out here understands it. I didn't understand nothing of what was going on. I love the arts. I watch theater. I'm very open-minded to things, but I got nothing from it." Then he asks his kids, aged 8 to 12, if they liked the play. Three tell him yes; the other says it was "so-so."

"Now let me ask you this," Graham says. "Did you understand it? What happened? What was going on?"

"The lady was crazy. She was going bazooko," one of the kids says. "That's the whole thing about it. Bazooko."

"What, somebody going crazy?" Graham responds with a laugh. "Well, they got more out of it than I did." Graham, who says he's a licensed carpenter, says he asked Redmoon if he could give them a hand building their set but was given the brush-off. "I don't know, maybe they had their own people to put it together, you know, and just didn't need my services. But I felt like, you are in our community. Why couldn't you let us give you a hand or even hire a few people?"

Regarding Graham's gripe about there being no black actors, Lasko and Thomas say they hear that complaint all the time. It's totally understandable, they say, but not an easy issue to solve. "Our experience is, it takes a long time for someone to be playing a role in our shows," says Thomas. "It doesn't just happen right away. It takes them working with us and us working with them, and them understanding what it is that we're doing and sort of participating with what we're trying to do on all levels. After a while in Logan Square we got so that there were people who got involved on that level. But people come by and say, 'Hey, can I be in your show?' But do they know what it means to be in a show? It's going to take a while for us to establish that. We started working on the show before we actually moved in here. I agree it's a huge issue; it's an important one. It's a difficult one to take on. We suffer from it the same way the whole society suffers from it. There's a division between the races in this society, so why should there not be a division in terms of organizations? We do think how can that be changed."

In terms of hiring neighborhood people, Lasko says, most of the people involved in the company are volunteers, people who've been with the company a long time because they love it. Only a handful are making any money at all--considering all the overtime they put in for nothing, Lasko says, it works out to about $4 an hour. "We understand that people here have the impression like, oh, the white guys move in and make all this stuff. They do these big productions and they have a stereo system and stuff, and it feels like, oh, we probably have a lot of dough. The fact is we don't. So to call that guy and say we can hire you for four bucks an hour is probably actually not something that he wants. And we couldn't anyway, because we've made a primary commitment to these people who have been with us for years."

Redmoon has made efforts to get the community involved in Long Live the King, Lasko and Thomas say. One neighbor scavenged furniture and other items from alleys and abandoned buildings and was paid for the stuff that wound up in the show. Neighborhood kids attending rehearsals have pitched in with odd assignments. One girl was offered an internship but stopped coming to rehearsals--why, Lasko says, he doesn't know. Now Redmoon is offering free art classes, an outreach effort it also has in Logan Square.

Thomas adds that other events, like the annual winter pageant, have an open-access policy; anyone who has an instrument and wants to play in the band is welcome. If someone wants to build masks, he's more than welcome. Thomas also says Redmoon has taken names and numbers of neighbors interested in participating in the Halloween lantern parade and spectacle. If the neighbors commit to parade rehearsal times, then they're in the show. These shows will be rehearsed in Humboldt Park but performed in Logan Square where they've always been staged.

After today's performance Beverly Wilcher, who sold the snow cones, approaches Redmoon's artistic directors, who are sitting in folding chairs near the stage. She tells them how much she liked the play. "I'm so happy to see y'all I don't know what to do," she says. "Don't go nowhere. Don't let a lot of these people scare you away, 'cause we need this. The kids need this. It gives the parents an uplift because they know where they can put their hands on their child. 'Where's Johnny at? Oh he's down there at the Redmoon Theater over there, probably with his hands full of clay or paint.' And that's what we need. So I'd just like to say thank you."

Within minutes she and Lasko are running toward a fight that's broken out near the stage. One girl has kicked another in the face. When Wilcher comes back she's so mad she's just got to say something. "These kids are exposed to so much shit in this community, this is all, all the time."

Despite Wilcher's wish that Redmoon will stick around, that isn't the company's intention. You could get the impression from the company's press release that this is meant to be a permanent move: "Redmoon Theater has taken their art to the streets of west Chicago--not just as a finished product, presented to people with limited access to the arts, but by moving into the community itself." (The italics are Redmoon's.) But Thomas, who'll be leaving the company at the end of this year, and Lasko say even their new space is too small; they hope to return to even larger digs in Logan Square. "Part of what we're trying to create is a ritual performance space, and so consistency of space and tradition becomes very important," Lasko says. "Continuity becomes very important."

To those who still question Red-moon's motives in moving to Humboldt Park without planning to stay, an answer may lie in Lasko's explanation of why the company itself has not integrated: "Is it an ideological goal for us to become a more integrated company, more representative of the population we serve, and the population of the city at large? The answer is yes. How to do that, I don't know. We haven't figured out how to do that yet. One of the major issues is the amount of volunteer time. Most everybody you see here is not paid for the work they're doing here. And most everybody you see here is convinced that this is a stepping stone for them or a final point for them in a career path, and that's why they do it. So that also is a stumbling block. It's not that we're here to serve this community; we're actually here to make professional theater. The way that we're going to do that happens to also hopefully serve the community, and the community hopefully will help us to make professional theater. But it's not our mission to be a community theater or to represent this community by making theater." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Blair Thomas, Jim Lasko photo by Nathan Mandell.

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