A Podcast Reaches Across Chicago’s Cultural Divides | Modern Society of USA

A Podcast Reaches Across Chicago’s Cultural Divides

A Podcast Reaches Across Chicago’s Cultural Divides

Chicago — The list of things born in this city includes the skyscraper, the Ferris wheel and (supposedly) brownies. And then there are its wonkier claims to fame.

Chicago was the crucible of 20th-century urban sociology. It was also midwife to today’s boom in audio storytelling, thanks to “This American Life,” which originated here.

Jeremy McCarter, the founder and executive director of Make-Believe Association, a new nonprofit podcast production company, makes no claim to inventing anything. But he’s hoping that the company’s first season, which made its debut this week, might usefully combine those last two Chicago creations.

Each episode in the season, titled “Grown Folks’ Tales,” features an audioplay based on a traditional folktale representing one strand of Chicago’s cultural diversity, reinterpreted by a homegrown writer. The plays are recorded live and presented along with excerpts from the post-show discussion among an audience carefully selected to reach beyond the usual theatergoers, who in this deeply divided city (as elsewhere) tend to run whiter, older and wealthier than the overall population.

Make-Believe, as Mr. McCarter likes to put it, is a podcast that’s “one part live theater, one part TV production, one part social science.”

When it comes to bridging social divides, he said recently over breakfast, “stories have an important role to play.”

Stories, of course, are also easier to come by than ever, thanks to the internet. The podcast universe is vast, and the biggest challenge for any new offering isn’t getting people talking, but simply being heard.

“Grown Folks’ Tales” is also 100 percent local, starting with a core writing team of up-and-coming collaborators. (The first season, whose budget Mr. McCarter described as running into the low six figures, is sponsored by the Poetry Foundation.)

Mr. Marshall, also a co-organizer of the annual Chicago Poetry Block Party, said that it took a while for Make-Believe’s approach to storytelling to take shape. But where the shows would be taped (non-theater spaces, they decided) and “how the audience is built and invited into the space was something we talked about from the very beginning,” he said.

Daniel Kyri, 25, an actor, director and filmmaker who is directing the Hansberry play, grew up in the Jackson Park neighborhood on the South Side. He has performed at the city’s most prestigious theaters (the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Lookingglass), as well as in his own crowd-funded web series, “The T” (created with Bea Cordelia), which explores queer and transgender friendship across Chicago’s divides of race, class and geography.

The first time he ever interacted with a white person, Mr. Kyri recalled, was when he was 9, on a school field trip.

“Chicago is multiple cities,” he said. “The discourse becomes more authentic when you can bridge — let’s call it what it is — segregation.”

During the post-show discussion of “Bruh Rabbit,” Mr. Marshall’s mother talked about the “invisible line” on Rainbow Beach, a public beach in the South Shore neighborhood, where, in 1961, whites attacked an interracial group staging a “freedom wade-in.”

The excerpts from audience discussion included with “Brava” emphasize how Latina women in the audience identified with its heroine. But the experience also stirred some different jolts of recognition.

“There were people there who hadn’t heard a radio play since they left Mexico,” Ms. Garcia Loza said. “They recognized this kind of oral tradition.”

After “The Lost Books of the Odyssey,” the conversation gravitated in a different direction: toward the placeless place of the internet, and the way social media allows us to act out different identities, different selves, different stories.

Mr. McCarter hopes Make-Believe’s stories will get people who find them online talking too.

“We want to open up a space and try to get people to travel an imaginative distance together,” he said.

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