jakub | January 23, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | Jackalope’s Journey to Their New (Temporary) Home

Entrance to the Broadway Armory Park building, home of Jackalope Theatre Company. (Photo by Azuree Wiitala)

Last summer, I received a press release that proceeded to pique my curiosity for the next six months. Jackalope Theatre Company announced that they were canceling their world premiere production of Pretty Shahid, a new play about a family who immigrated to Chicago from Iraq just as 9/11 happened. Written by Jackalope company member Omer Abbas Salem and directed by Sophiyaa Nayar, the play was originally set to run June 16-July 23, 2023. We received the press release on June 16 saying that the show would not go on as planned.

Kaiser Ahmed. (Photo by Azuree Wiitala)

Now, this wasn’t the only cancellation notice we’ve received, especially in recent years, and it’s not even the first one we’ve gotten on the day a show was supposed to begin performances. But many of those notices have in recent years been tied to COVID. This wasn’t. A joint statement at the time from Jackalope’s board and leadership simply stated that the production “experienced multiple issues” that “brought it to a halt.” Last month, I had a chance to sit down with Jackalope’s artistic director, Kaiser Ahmed, who talked me through the company’s eventful 2023, which saw them leave their Chicago Park District home to make room for asylum seekers coming to the city. As a result, the company was clouded in uncertainty: around where the company would be able to settle down, and even where and when their next show would take the stage. The dust is just now beginning to settle, with the theatre finally able to announce firm plans for a two-show 16th season.

A bit of background for non-Chicagoans: Jackalope’s home space for years was in Broadway Armory Park, the largest indoor recreational facility under the Chicago Park District and a crucial community hub for the Edgewater neighborhood. According to Alderwoman Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth’s office, it’s one of the most used Park District facilities in the city. Jackalope has been creating theatre and providing classes on the second floor of the building for a decade, and when the pandemic hit, they set about expanding their Armory space and officially retiring a nearby Edgewater storefront, the Frontier, that they had also previously used.

Fast forward to early 2023, less than a week into the rehearsal process for Pretty Shahid. Ahmed said the company began to hear of a shift on the horizon, both for the city of Chicago and Jackalope’s home park. There were rumblings that the Armory building would be called upon to provide temporary shelter for asylum seekers coming into Chicago. So in May, the company had conversations with the Park District about what might happen for the company if the Armory was called upon for that use.

It wouldn’t be the first time Jackalope had moved to accommodate others. During the quarantine days of the pandemic, the Armory was used as a homeless shelter, also resulting in the temporary displacement of the company. Basically, Ahmed recalled, the Park staff moved out and the city staff moved in. It amounted to “a complete shutdown of the building,” as Ahmed put it, though the impact of not being able to access the building was mitigated by the fact that the company was already working digitally due to the pandemic lockdown.

The whole thing is tricky, because Jackalope doesn’t own their space. They have a use contract which commits the park space to the company, in return for which the company provides classes and services for the parks. Every few years, Ahmed said, there’s a renewal process to ensure the relationship between the company and park remains mutually beneficial. Ahmed complimented the park supervisors for their effort, both in this partnership and in their aid in navigating recent months of uncertainty for the company—all of this happening as the city was seeing a new administration take over, with Mayor Brandon Johnson succeeding Lori Lightfoot. Manaa-Hoppenworth was also a new alderwoman for the area.

Jackalope Theatre Company’s lobby within Broadway Armory Park. (Photo by Azuree Wiitala)

Ahmed said these numerous transitions made for a hectic back-and-forth around the end of May as the company worked with the Park District to find a new park space for Jackalope to call home, for a while at least. Ahmed emphasized that the feeling he got, both from the city and from the Park District, is that everyone involved wanted to ensure that the relationship between the parks and these community-centric organizations wasn’t disrupted.

“They were true to that,” Ahmed said. “Everything they knew, as they knew it, we knew. That was very, very helpful for us to be able to pivot and move and land solidly on our feet again.”

By the beginning of August, migrants began arriving at the Armory as the city moved forward with its plans to transform the community center into a temporary shelter for 250 people. You can read from a number of news sources at the time some discontent, to say the least, from community members who relied on the numerous programs and services that had previously operated out of the Armory. But Ahmed never wavered from the conviction that, despite the difficulty for Jackalope, the city providing this space for asylum seekers was the right thing to do. According to Manaa-Hoppenworth’s office, the city is working to expedite resettlement and visa programs, and the use of the Armory is scheduled to be reevaluated every six months, with the first reevaluation set for next month.

“Neighbors are demanding that the city keep its promise to reevaluate the need for the Broadway Armory Shelter after six months,” Manaa-Hoppenworth’s office said in a statement, emphasizing that many in the community have welcomed the new families with open arms. “The Broadway Armory Park exists because the Edgewater community, along with our previous Alderwomen, fought for this community resource, and we are looking forward to bringing Parks programming back to the facility as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, Jackalope announced in September that they’d found a new temporary home for their administration and classes at a Park District space a little further north, Loyola Park Fieldhouse. Earlier this month, Jackalope announced they will finally retake the stage at Edgewater’s Berger Park with The Smuggler (Feb. 16-March 16) by Ronán Noone, directed by former Jackalope and Book-It artistic director Gus Menary. Their second show is set to be announced later this week.

“After a challenging and transformative year, we’re building momentum in a new era for our company,” Ahmed said in a statement alongside the show’s official announcement. “By producing in Edgewater at Berger Park Coach House and operating at Loyola Park, we are strengthening connections to our community while expanding our neighborhood footprint.” 

In our conversation, Ahmed added that he feels that Jackalope has grown more nimble, and more prepared to pivot. Jackalope’s relationship with the Park District has now expanded to a multi-park partnership that could eventually see Jackalope returning to the Armory as its home base, with Loyola Park and potentially Berger Park in their back pocket in case the need arises again for the company to make room for others who need the Armory. Hopefully, Ahmed said, this will lead to Jackalope’s audience associating the company not only with the Armory, but with the Park District and Edgewater neighborhood in general.

“For so long, our company’s history has been inside those Armory walls,” Ahmed said. “We got really excited, and I still am—like, that’s still our space. We’re very excited to get back in there and do some weird, cool stuff. But mentally, where the edges of Jackalope are—that’s gone, and I’m so glad it’s gone. Now our borders and the walls of our company aren’t there, on the second floor. It’s: Where does the Park District end?”

Ahmed continues to advocate that more theatre companies work with their local parks and park districts. He encourages artists to get in touch with their local parks supervisors and to dive head first into research on what it would take to partner with city parks.

“Every neighborhood has a park,” Ahmed said. “Every neighborhood has a parks district, if not a couple of park supervisors to meet. All you need is a park supervisor to be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll put my name to that. I’ll back it.’ As long as you find that supervisor partner, the one thing the parks have is space and spaces.”

Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is the Chicago Editor for American Theatrejpierce@tcg.org

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