Fostering community connections
The space was designed by Morris Architects Planners and local artist Theaster Gates, a UChicago faculty member who solicited guidance from the local arts community, including Chatman and Parson. Gates is the founder and former director of Arts + Public Life, an initiative launched in 2011 to foster stronger connections between the University and the artists working in the surrounding neighborhoods.
The first theater to open in the area in decades, the Green Line Performing Arts Center contains the E&A Theatre, a black-box venue with 80-plus seats; the Harris Studio, which can host rehearsals as well as performances; as well as a lobby and a courtyard for outdoor screenings and other programming. The outside of the facility is adorned with a black brick façade; when the sun goes down, the building’s lights shine out through the gaps.
But even more important is the center’s community-facing philosophy. By drawing people from across the spectrum of performance arts, the space can become a catalyst for creativity— leveraging talent in one individual to spark inspiration in another.
“You’ll have someone who’s working in the dance studio,” Chatman said, “and you may hear some music, or you may see some movement, and that can generate some ideas for your work.”
Parson highlighted the fact that the center will offer technical training in the arts, in addition to serving as a space for local theater groups and independent creatives. A facility that has state-of-the-art lighting and equipment gives young people in the community hands-on training and opportunities to apprentice and intern.
That, in turn, can increase minority representation in light, sound and set design—numbers that have not grown, Parson said, even as local productions have tried to become more inclusive in their hiring and casting.
“People are looking for designers of color,” he said. “When you look for a designer and you want to do a show that’s Afro-centric or Latino, when you can find those designers that have the cultural background, that helps. We want to educate and entertain at the same time.”
Lori Berko, deputy director of Arts + Public Life, said the Green Line Performing Arts Center will not only build on existing partnerships with South Side artists and art organizations, but also incubate new relationships. Arts + Public Life’s artist residency programs, for example, will soon expand to include theater companies, ensembles and collectives.
“We are beyond excited to activate another much-needed theater space in the neighborhood,” Berko said. “That this opening drew over 900 people despite cold weather demonstrates the robust cultural landscape of the South Side. It feels amazing looking around and seeing everyone that’s coming into this space, asking ‘When is the first program? How can I get involved?’”
‘A story book opening’
The opening also may help spark a once-lively South Side corridor. On the same block in August 1911, the Louise Amusement Company purchased what was then the President Theater, a 781-seat venue that it ran for more than a decade. By 1936, the space had transformed into a nightclub, operating intermittently over the next several years as both Dave’s Cafe and Swingland Cafe.
The Rhumboogie Cafe debuted to great fanfare on April 17, 1942, one that the Chicago Defender called “a story book opening” attended by Louis and “a brilliant array of celebrities.” Describing a packed house that sent crowds flowing to nearby venues, the newspaper was bold in its prediction for the Rhumboogie: “People of all races and from all walks of life fought to get a chance to see the premiere of what is destined to become Chicago’s brightest night spot.”