Yeah, this is late. I know.
I previously lamented missing out on Feast by Albany Park Theater Project, but I did get on the mailing list. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, they added a show! So I quickly purchased my ticket for the added show, and feeling felicitous, made my way to the Eugene Field Park building, which houses the Laura Wiley Theater, on a Wednesday night.
This was my first time at APTP, and I was not really expecting high production values and beautiful set. Shame on me for assuming that theater developed with and by kids is going to be cheap. That’s an extremely unhelpful assumption, and I’m glad to have been wrong. This is high grade storefront theater, created by obviously dedicated teenagers, directed and coached by experienced theater professionals.
Feast is vibrant and moving. This is not surprising, given the premise. A multicultural teenage cast interviewed denizens of Chicago’s diverse north-side Albany Park neighborhood, learning their culinary traditions and recording their reminiscences, and brought them to the stage with the full energy of their youth. A story of catching fish in the river near one’s boyhood home connects me to my father’s stories of growing up on a Wisconsin lake, only the boyhood home on this stage was in the Philippines. Sacred culinary tradition is upheld in the ritualistic cadences of a halal butcher, taking over the family business with pride so his Lebanese grandfather can retire. The sacred is contrasted by the joyfully corporeal inheritance of a traditional tamale recipe (don’t be stingy with the manteca!), which saves the sidewalk food cart business of two immigrants.
The performance style is less varied than the cultural tapestry. Most of the performance is monologue-based, and very heavy on stylized movement, occasionally distracting, often with other cast members supporting the monologist with choreographed movement or dance. Three breaks from this convention standout.
As a boy tells his story of raising the family cow, destined for the market, he is accompanied by four cast members serving as Foley artists. This is the funniest scene, very charming and engaging. The considerable energy of the young cast is most effectively channeled here. It feels very improvisational, as though the Foley artists and the actor on stage are trying to catch each other.
Three monologues are interwoven in a scene surrounding Illinois’ LINK card, a theoretically more dignified and efficient modern version of food stamps. As a child, my family received food stamps, and my mother used them to buy as much healthy food as she could, so it was with a cringe of concern that I watched one of these three monologues herald a bacchanal of junk food afforded by the LINK on the first day of the month. In a city with food deserts in some poor neighborhoods, it is strange to see such celebration of non-nutritive consumption. But Feast is sharing stories with us, not preaching to us or asking to be preached at, so I guess I can own my self-righteous cultural chauvinism and just deal with it. The young woman who tells this story makes such a platform of her shopping cart–climbing, jumping, twirling and dancing in, on and around it–that at one point there were gasps of alarm from the audience. Another LINK card monologue centers around a young Latina girl completing the government forms for her non-English speaking mother, unaware of the rules and ramifications. I connected most, though, with a third story woven through these two: that of a young man desperate to hide his family’s use of the LINK card from his friends. I can recall his shame from my own childhood, and can certainly empathize a little with his selfish demands that his mother buy name brand groceries for him, while the rest of the family eats generic breakfast cereal sold in bags, not boxes.
Another break from the monologue format was a little disturbing. A group of girls, dressed as gothed-up Victorian dolls, sang stilted and dissonant schoolyard rhymes about feeding and serving a husband and family someday. The rhymes are all vaguely familiar–I had heard many of them on playgrounds–but I hadn’t noticed their insidious potential for socialization of girls towards subservience until I saw them this way.
In all, the show is a terrific collage of the sacred, the profane, pride, shame, nostalgia, tradition, self-actualization, social oppression, frustration and optimism. And it’s all about food! You can’t watch Feast without getting hungry. And you can still see it! More on that at the end. I paid full price: $18 plus Brown Paper Tickets processing charges (which are low and reasonable, unlike with those Ticketmaster bastards).
A friend of mine compared Albany Park Theater Project to El Sistema, and I certainly see where he’s coming from. El Sistema is the Venezuelan program (official name: Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, or FESNOJIV) wherein children and teens of limited opportunities are taught to play an instrument in an orchestra, or even conduct. El Sistema’s most currently famous alum, Gustavo Dudamel, is the new Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and last year he conducted the U.S. tour of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, made up of the best musicians from El Sistema. El Sistema not only provides a constructive outlet, and helps young people from poor neighborhoods find an artistic voice, it also demands dedication and excellence. I see APTP doing the same. Their program book also makes it clear that there is a successful college counseling component to what they do, by the way.
Feast will be remounted on July 20th, for one performance only, as part of the Goodman Latino Theatre Festival this summer. Tickets are $18, and I highly encourage you to get yours now. I want to take all of my friends who are educators or theater practitioners.