As theatres struggle to find their identity in a new American era, artistic director Chay Yew and his Victory Gardens have a simple mission: put America onstage. Their 2017–2018 season is one of their most ambitious yet, and the announcement last month immediately garnered attention both inside and outside Chicago.
Besides mounting the first regional Chicago production of Fun Home, the season includes a behind-the-scenes drama about a Mexican-American television writer (Fade), a coming of age story about a black woman in a dead-end job, struggling with an unexpected pregnancy (Breach), a piece about a mother dealing with life post-incarceration (Doing It), and an adaptation of August Strindberg’s Mies Julie, set against the backdrop of post-Apartheid South Africa. “Every show might not be your individual experience with America, but they’re definitely about what makes us American,” Yew says. “This theatre belongs to the people...What are they thinking? What are they afraid of? What do they want to celebrate?”
Amidst all the conflict and noise, Yew believes theatre has an important role to play in healing our current political divide. “The question became, how do we bring people with different viewpoints into the same room and have a dialogue and share a theatrical experience together? Is there a way we can actually start talking to each other?” he asks. “We need to reach out. We can’t just offer programming for people who already get us. If we’re isolating other people, isn’t that how we got here? We need to build bridges in the places we can.” Victory Gardens will always have open doors for people with differing viewpoints. “Let’s sit together and talk and become one again. Let’s unify our communities together.”
The theatre company, now in its 42nd season, has always tried to engage people in addition to entertaining them, and Yew believes the Victory Gardens audience wants that. That’s why they offer public forums at the end of certain performances, so their patrons can talk and explore the issues of the play. With over 100 theatre companies in the Chicagoland area, each with their own DNA, it’s important not to be a “mini-version” of another company. “Each theatre is very good at what they do. The last thing you want to do is replicate. Our audiences fit the PBS dial. They like when the stories we tell reflect what’s really going on,” Yew says. “Now, it’s easy to shy off and say, ‘This is our tribe’, but I think that’s the wrong thing to think...It troubles me when we start saying that these aren’t our experiences and we don’t want to represent them, we only want to see us.”
Our collective ownership of the entire American identity, not just the parts we’ve experienced directly, is crucial for both Victory Gardens and for Yew. “African-American history is ours, Jewish history is ours, Asian history, Latino history, feminist history are all ours. We need to claim them,” he insists, “We are a diverse quilt of experiences and voices, and that’s what makes America. These stories belong to you. They belong to all of us.”