‘And then I laughed’ – Chicago Reader

At one point in Theater Y’s ambulatory Laughing Song: A Walking Dream, Marvin Tate as George W. Johnson (the first Black American recording artist) is asked by a reporter at a press conference, “Is your laugh real, or is it fake?” It’s a reasonable question—but by the end of this four-hour show, which weaves together elements of Johnson’s life with Tate’s own experiences growing up in North Lawndale, it also feels utterly beside the point. How do we even know where our laughter comes from? If we stop to examine it, do we kill the fleeting moment of joy? And given everything that happens in the span of our earthly existence, shouldn’t we just be grateful we can laugh at all?

The devised piece, created by Tate and Evan Hill in collaboration with the 12-member cast and directed by Theater Y artistic director Melissa Lorraine, does indeed unfold, as the subtitle promises, in a sort of dream state. If you’re unfamiliar with the landscape of North Lawndale (as I largely was before seeing the show), it’s a chance to see the neighborhood’s broad boulevards and parks lined with vintage greystone buildings (more than any other neighborhood in Chicago), interspersed with boarded-up storefronts that tell the story of decades-long disinvestment in the west-side community. (This is the third installment in Theater Y’s ongoing Camino Project—a series of outdoor walking performances inspired by the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain.)

Laughing Song: A Walking Dream
Through 8/28: Sat-Sun 3-7 PM (dinner included). The ambulatory performance begins at YMEN Center, 1241 S. Pulaski, theatre-y.com, free (donations accepted).

This is where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed to highlight the crisis in housing for Black Chicagoans. This is also where activists set up a 47-day protest in “Freedom Square” in 2016 to call attention to the Chicago Police Department’s infamous Homan Square interrogation facility. And it’s where young Marvin Tate first discovered his calling as an artist. Early on in the show, he recounts (as he did in a profile by Reader contributor Jack Helbig) that his childhood encounter with Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool” helped him find his voice (one that had been hampered by the fact that he had a stutter).

But Tate’s biography is more implied than told, except for a haunting segment that unfolds on some abandoned railroad tracks, where we meet his mother, Ophelia (Cat Evans), who always carried an ice pick for protection and waited for her wandering husband to return . Lamarion Hall embodies the absent father, dressed in black tuxedo pants and a white dress shirt and walking far down the tracks while Ophelia trails at a distance, wearing a bright blue dress and lugging a suitcase—a poetic evocation of romantic longing and loss, as well as a subtle reminder of the Northern Migration that brought Tate’s mother to Chicago.

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