For two weeks, strangers would venture into one another’s home for a communal meal and transformative art experience.
The unique festival’s origins are in Berkeley California. For those who wanted to host an evening, interested participants would nominate their homes via Google Doc. However, Chicago founders Laley Lippard and Irina Zadov felt that it was important to prioritize Chicago neighborhoods that are often overlooked. For this festival we weren’t going to explore the trendy West Loop or posh River North. Instead, we would venture to Englewood, Humboldt Park, Bronzeville, and Pilsen just to name a few.
“No two performances are the same. You have no idea what to expect. Come in without any expectations and remove those barriers first. It’ll leave you much more open to what you are about to experience in the truest way”
Each space prioritizes people of color and LGBTQ identifying artists. For two weeks, their works receive their well-deserved shine in a world that oftentimes overlooks them.
Artist Tasha Viets-Vanlear shares how “no two performances are the same. You have no idea what to expect. Come in without any expectations and remove those barriers first. It’ll leave you much more open to what you are about to experience in the truest way”
The festival gave us all the opportunity to step outside of our comfort zones and embark on new experiences in a culture different from our own, while fellowshipping with strangers. The rich culture and experiences one can have in Chicago is certainly undeniable.
A Tour of HumboldtFor my first neighborhood of the festival, I ventured to Humboldt Park’s Reunion.
Prior to traveling to our host home for the evening, the night kicked off with a tour of the historic neighborhood.
Our tour guide was a long time resident of Humboldt so she was well versed in the happenings. She shared how back in the day, Humboldt Park was known for having the largest Puerto Rican population in the country. Two giant steel Puerto Rican flags between Western and California Ave remain a symbol of the neighborhood’s rich history.
We wandered through the neighborhood and listened to our tour guide tell stories of her Puerto Rican ancestry. She even shared a story of how her grandmother was hit by a Chicago cab while pregnant with her uncle. Her grandmother sued the city and won what was a large settlement at that time.
In an odd twist of fate, that settlement was able to open up a family owned convenience store that remained a Humboldt Park landmark. Decades later profits from that convenient store was able to send countless family members to college. It’s the uncovering of hidden stories like these encapsulate the essence of the Chicago Home Theater Festival.
Welcome to ReunionAfter we received our brief history lesson of Humboldt and got to know our tour guide, we then head to our host home of the evening, Reunion.
Founded by Kristen Kaza and Elijah McKinnon, Reunion is a co-working/event space, & art gallery created to be a safe space for LGBTQ identifying and people of color. “We are a beautiful representation of Chicago which is diverse in thought, identity and expression” describes Kristen. At Reunion, the goal is always to have a good time with the people around you who eventually become your kinsfolk. Think of it like always entering a family reunion; except the feeling is every day and not just once a year. At Reunion, the space is flexible enough where you can engage in self-care with yoga or a fun tropical inspired dance party. A bit of everything goes on here.
Reunion is Home
“House parties are still my favorite because people behave differently, they are more open to meeting someone new, they are respectful of someone’s home space.You know, when you go into someone’s home, you’re being respectful, you ask for things, you’re polite and mindful. People are cognizant when they are in a home space and I would hope that it would be the same with Reunion”.
According to Kristen, there’s something special about a home that makes it a profound gathering spot. She shares “when you come into a home you already have different sort of behavior that’s why I love house parties so much. House parties are still my favorite because people behave differently, they are more open to meeting someone new, they are respectful of someone’s home space. You know, when you go into someone’s home, you’re being respectful, you ask for things, you’re polite and mindful. People are cognizant when they are in a home space and I would hope that it would be the same with Reunion”.
While Reunion is the only home of the festival that may not traditionally qualify as someone’s place of residence; for the past year Elijah and Kristen have poured blood sweat and tears into making Reunion a home for the underrepresented.
Various Chicago performers consider Reunion a home and safe space. For the evening, our family reunion would be made complete with a performance by the newest member of the Reunion family Tasha Viets-Vanlear and Reunion veteran Darling Shear.
Due to the nature of the festival, Reunion proved to be a perfect fit.
We are FamilyThroughout the evening, guests were encouraged to contemplate the evening’s theme and message. Kristen shares “We wanted to take time to reflect and give people the opportunity to think about traditions, rituals, and what it means to be at a reunion” As soon as the doors first flung open, and we were greeted with a hug by the festival’s founders Irina and Lalely, it was as if we had entered a very real family reunion.
Classic cookout songs and videos such as “We are Family” immediately filled the room. No reunion is complete without an activity. We all participated in collaborative art mural with the prompt, “What is Home?”. Each guests would go to the mural and paint either a small picture or a word that defined home. Towards the end of the night the mural was decorated with phrases such as peace, comfort, and various symbols of home. One could even see a warm cuddly dog painted on the canvas.
After we let our creative juices flow, it was then time to open our minds and hearts to one another.
One by one we shared how do we find peace. One attendee shared her ritual of a rose water bubble bath, another let out a deep exhale, and others shared the importance of acceptance. It was raw and incredibly vulnerable and the perfect way to open our hearts to the featured performer of the evening; Tasha Viets-Vanlear.
Wow Tasha WowThe lights are dimmed and our featured performer of the evening Tasha was surrounded by a sea of candles. She starts off by tuning her guitar. It was almost as if we were witnessing a private rehearsal.
She began by reading a selection of some of her favorite poems including an excerpt from the Velveteen Rabbit. Her incredibly supportive mother was also in attendance which further enhanced the familial vibe of the evening.
Tasha captivated audience with familiar as well as new tunes. The audience hummed along or swayed to the beat. Each note further pulled the audience closer to Tasha.
It was a raw yet ethereal look into one of Chicago’s rising stars.
Each song seemed to put everyone at ease. It was as if Tasha wrapped everyone in a blanket of comfort.
This was not Tasha’s first go-round at the Home Theater Festival. In fact when she began her transition from writer to musician, it was at the festival when she made her live performance debut. Fast forward to now, and Tasha is certainly one to watch.
When I asked Tasha what she hopes the audience gets out of the performance, she shares ” I value finding the most pretty ways to use my words and my voice to touch really specific things in the people around me. I want people to be moved in anyway and by any thing”.
Judging by the quiet stillness of peace that befell the room, I think Tasha achieved just that.
The Grand Dame Darling ShearNext up was Darling Shear. Darling is essentially a Chicago icon. When she’s scheduled to perform, you know you are in for quite the show. I had seen Darling at a few events but her performance at Reunion set the bar at a whole new level.
For this performance, she would debut a new performance style. We would witness not only her impeccable dancing but also her captivating storytelling.
She walked us through the story, or rather danced through her journey as a transgender woman. She glided across the room to icons such as Ella Fitzgerald and to Porgy & Bess’s Summer Time.
Throughout the retelling of her story, there were moments of sadness and wonder. I recall one story how Darling recollected her time visiting a relative who also happened to be a voodoo priestess. It felt as if your good girlfriend had called you up with all the exciting and juicy details of her wild and intriguing day.
With each movement we either laughed or were brought to tears with Darling’s profound story. If you didn’t know Darling before, this night served as a proper introduction for many.
Healing with the Healing CornerSince the festival highly values community, Kristen & Elijah’s decision to include the work of Humboldt Park’s The Healing Corner was a much needed eye-opener for attendees. The non-profit organization provides healing to the Humboldt Park community by popping up on street corners with meals, literature and other goods. Their efforts seek to intercept violence by ultimately providing a positive influence in the community.
For one outing, they distributed meals on a playground just days after a shooting. While there have been numerous changes throughout the Humboldt Park community, one thing that remains constant is the sense of community. The ties in Humboldt are very strong and whether you are an old or new resident, you can take comfort knowing that your community has your back.
Parting WaysTo conclude the evening, we didn’t just go our separate ways. Instead, we turned to our neighbor and asked one another how we were getting home. This small gesture, showed even a complete stranger that you cared.
We left Reunion and Humboldt Park with the feeling that we just discovered a new Home. Home is comfort, home is peace and there’s certainly no place like home.
Be sure to check out Reunion’s Calendar of Events for the fun happenings within their space.
*All Photos Courtesy of Holiday Gerry for The Chicago Home Theater Festival