Experimental Station incubating resident’s theater piece, art nonprofit

Staff Writer

Carla Stillwell wants people in Hyde Park to talk about race, and she is using her first-of-a-kind residency at the Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., to produce a theater piece to spur such conversations.

“It can go either way right now, right?” she asked. “We can grow as a nation, and we can grow past some of the racial tensions, or we can go backwards. Because we’re spinning right now as a nation. And I think that liberal white people are the key, because I think liberal white people are the problem.”

Stillwell, the former artistic director of the MPAACT Theatre, said it never occurred to her in “45 years of blackness” that there exists a world where white people do not talk about race. In a neighborhood like Hyde Park, one of Chicago’s only truly integrated communities, she said non-white people are expected to “jettison” their racial identity to be a part of the “amalgamated” community.

“I think that for black and brown people to assimilate into this multicultural situation, we don’t get to be ‘cultural,’” she said.

“I don’t cover my blackness,” said the South Shore native and resident. “I talk about politics and religion freely, because I feel like if you’re not talking about politics and religion, then I don’t know where you are. I can’t get to know you. So there’s this idea of politeness and ‘we don’t talk about these things’ that has all of these surface relationships.”

She rejects the notion of racial colorblindness. “If you say you don’t see this,” she said, gesturing to her skin, “then you’re ignoring 400 years, 500 years of my history. So we have to have that conversation.”

Stillwell’s piece, “Desecration: Of Gravel Graves,” reflects on a police shooting and the time afterwards in a black community. It begins when the streetlights come on, which Stillwell called a witching hour “when mothers start looking for children, when people start figuring out if their spouse is coming home” and continues through the night. Still in development, it’s being written for five performers and a live visual artist, Robert Pitts.

“The conversation is around humanity, period,” she said. “Let’s start talking about about how we see human beings and what we do or don’t do to human beings, period.”

Assistant director Matthew Searle said Experimental Station is trying to shift its arts and cultural programing from being just a facility to being an arts producer — “How can we make it relevant to the immediate neighborhood, and how can we make it more interactive?” Stillwell’s residency came about through a personal connection with Corey Chatman, who runs the LINK Up Illinois program to increase SNAP benefits recipients’ access to promote from farmers’ markets.

“We have a long history of doing things in this space, but it has felt different than the way we go about incubating essentially businesses,” said Searle. “What’s happening with Carla is to apply those methods of incubation that we do with fledgling nonprofits in a lot of different content areas, to do that with an artist.”

Experimental Station is currently seeking six months of incubation funding for Stillwell’s planned arts brick-and-mortar arts nonprofit, the Charlene Stillwell Institute for Contemporary Black Art, named for her mother, in South Shore, with paid fellowships for emerging artists and connections to Chicago’s art museums and schools.

“Desecration” premieres at Experimental Station on July 30 at 5:30 p.m.