The Y Theater takes the public on a walk with ‘Laughing Song’
The streets of North Lawndale transform into a theatrical landscape as cast and audience take a three-mile journey together in Theater Y’s “Laughing Song: A Walking Dream.” The small theater company, formerly based in Lincoln Square, is in the process of moving to the West Side neighborhood and has tapped North Lawndale native Marvin Tate – poet, visual artist and musician – to co-write and star in the production.
“Laughing Song” marks the third iteration of the Y Theater’s Camino project, a series of promenade-style productions inspired by Spain’s Camino de Santiago. The show weaves Tate’s personal memories with the story of a little-known historical figure: George W. Johnson, who was hired in 1890 to perform vaudeville tunes for a phonograph company, becoming the first artist to black recording in the world. He recorded his seminal piece, “The Laughing Song”, at least 50,000 times until disc duplication technology was invented 15 years later.
Playwright Evan Hill, married to Y Theater artistic director Melissa Lorraine, came across this song while studying experimental comedy for a doctorate at Yale University. Hill and Lorraine brought the idea of developing a show around Johnson’s story to Tate, who was involved with the Camino 2021 project and co-directs the Y Theater’s youth program. He agreed to co-write the show with Hill and to play the role of Johnson, with Lorraine directing and the entire Theater Y designing the production.
“We really appreciate (Tate’s) artistic sensibility; it fits with our sense of non-linear storytelling and leaves room for the audience to take ownership and make it their own,” Lorraine said in a recent interview. As the cast of “Laughing Song” leads the audience through the neighborhood, they sing, dance and perform spoken word poetry as well as more traditionally scripted scenes.
The winding walking route includes sites of historical significance and personal significance to Tate, including the Stone Temple Baptist Church, a former synagogue for Romanian Jewish immigrants and now home to a black congregation that frequently hosted Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Another standout stop is the original 14-story Sears Tower (now the Nichols Tower in Homan Square), where Tate sold popcorn as a teenager. The trip sparks interest in local history and serves as an immersive introduction to the new Y Theater district for audiences attending its shows on the North Side.
As the Tribune previously reported, the Y Theater began planning its move to North Lawndale in 2020, while Chicago theaters were still closed due to the pandemic. They originally chose a location on South Pulaski Street and envisioned a campus that would serve not only as a performance venue, but also as a community center and residence for theater artists.
When the redevelopment of this building failed, the company sought another local space that would fulfill this vision. A building at 3611 W. Cermak did the trick, and Theater Y is working on a purchase with the goal of closing in early October. Partial funding comes from a $250,000 grant awarded in 2021 by Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, and the theater is also negotiating a loan from the Illinois Facilities Fund and planning a capital campaign.
The Cermak property, a four-story building with 30,000 square feet inside and a 7,500 square foot roof, is already in shape to begin hosting shows this fall. Future renovations are expected to include a black-owned cafe and educational spaces for the theater’s various departments. Several artists currently rent in the building, and the theater plans to retain these tenants and bring in more artists to live and work on site.
Eager to start engaging with the community in the meantime, Theater Y launched a youth program in partnership with the Firehouse Community Arts Center in North Lawndale in March 2022. Puppet theater artist and Tate Michael Montenegro co-directed a 10-week spring session focusing on puppetry and masks, spoken word, experimental music, and found object visual art. The 12 participants performed a final showcase at the fire station, and the program will resume in September, with the fall session culminating in a full production at the new Y Theater campus.
As they seek to provide artistic resources, theater leaders are taking concrete steps to contribute to the neighborhood. One such effort is a geothermal heating and cooling system designed by Y Theater board member architect Trish VanderBeke, who pitched the idea to the Citizens Utility Board and received endorsement from the city to create a pilot site on the new campus. Local residents will be able to tap into this utility source, which should save local households money on their energy bills, offsetting potential property tax increases associated with the theater’s presence.
Théâtre Y also aims to employ neighborhood residents in a variety of roles. They are in talks to partner with one of Chicago’s leading carpentry and scenic painting companies to start a paid apprenticeship program in North Lawndale. Additionally, youth program participants will likely graduate from specific training programs, depending on their skills and interests. Two members of the first cohort, Lamarion Hall and Roesha Townsel, are currently performing in the “Laughing Song” ensemble.
“The whole concept is to really focus on employing as many people from the community as possible, training as much as we can while we create professional work and becoming an institution that belongs to North Lawndale as quickly as possible. said Lorraine.
During the broadcast of “Laughing Song,” community members were “extraordinarily warm” to the ensemble, she noted. “They come out of their homes to greet us as we pass, encourage us and tell the actors that they are beautiful.” Children follow on bicycles and volunteer to help set up the lights for the show.
Theater Y will continue to collaborate with local artists and community leaders on future artistic projects. “Laughing Song” was “a pilot of how we lead from behind,” Lorraine said. “We had a seed idea; we took it to (Tate), who could manifest it with integrity and authenticity, and we backed him to try to make this happen as peripherally as we knew.
In addition to Tate, the company’s consultants include Haman Cross III, artist-in-residence at the Firehouse Community Arts Center, and Steve Bynum, theater board chairman and longtime senior producer for WBEZ. As they began to plan the move to North Lawndale, Bynum encouraged Lorraine to “maintain the global component” of the Y Theater’s programming, which generally focused on experimental and European plays.
Lorraine explained Bynum’s advice: “One of the consequences of racism, segregation and racial inequality is that this community’s global citizenship has been stolen. They are disconnected from the city, and then they are disconnected from the world and no longer see the world as their own. And if you can maintain your global component as a theater company serving North Lawndale and claim their global citizenship for them, that’s going to be how you really contribute to the ecosystem within that community.
“Understanding how we are sustaining ourselves as an international company and refocusing our efforts on North Lawndale is the challenge ahead of us as an organization,” Lorraine said. “And I can’t pretend that I have those answers. I only have questions about how this is going to move forward, but I have an amazing team of artists who are truly aligned behind this vision, and I have no doubt that, like we did with ‘Laughing Song ‘, there are solutions.
“Laughing Song: A Walking Dream” runs through August 28, with performances from 3-7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (meal included). The show begins and ends at the YMEN Center at 1241 S. Pulaski; tickets are free, more information on www.theatre-y.com