Halcyon Theatre brings social justice to the stage

Estrella Cruz [the junkyard queen]
Allyce Torres as Estrella Cruz and Kelly Opalko as Bette Davis

By Katina Beniaris

Inside a local church in multicultural Albany Park, a small theater company  gives the community free access on a first come first served basis to main stage productions such as “The Wild Duck” and “In Love and Warcraft.”

Halcyon Theatre recruits actors and crew from the community to produce live shows as diverse as the city of Chicago. The company’s newest production “Estrella Cruz [the junkyard queen]” will be the first performance in their newly converted theater space on the third floor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3255 W. Wilson Ave.

For the theater company’s 10th season, “Estrella Cruz [the junkyard queen]” follows the theater’s theme of reworking old stories to portray contemporary relevance for the Albany Park community. This play serves as a modern twist on the classic Greek myth of “Persephone,” daughter of Demeter,  the goddess of harvests and fertility.

Written by Chicago playwright Charise Castro Smith, “Estrella Cruz” is about a mother and daughter. Estrella experiences a coming of age –  kidnapped by the lord of the underworld and having Bette Davis as her imaginary best friend.

“Every time you come and see a Halcyon production… there is no typical casting,” said Denise Hoeflich, president of the board and company member. “Albany Park, at one point, I think, was the most culturally diverse neighborhood in the country. It’s the perfect neighborhood for Halcyon to be in because diversity is our mission.”

The Visit
Peter Espositio and ensemble in “The Visit” (Adam Dodds)

Halcyon Theatre took to the stage in 2006 when co-founders, Tony and Jenn Adams produced “The Visit” about a destitute desert town waiting for the hometown girl turned billionaire to bring things back to life. Tony and Jenn each had experience working at local theater companies, but it took a few years of searching (while raising their newborn daughter) to figure out how the theater was going to express new voices.

“A lot of it for the first couple years was figuring out how we can find the answer to the initial question – what was missing in our work? But, in hindsight, it was really obvious. Diversity was always at the core,” said Tony Adams, who serves as artistic director.

Halcyon has transformed since 2010 to find creative ways to connect and unify diverse people and cultures.  The company started the Artist-in-Residence program in 2012 to find new and multi-talented artists who had a passion for social justice like their 2014 Artist-in-Residence and recent Illinois Wesleyan University graduate Allyce Torres.

“I spent a year with [Halcyon] and I was really impressed about the amount of social justice work that goes into the theater plays we choose and the plays that we put up. And how much consciousness and community involvement we have,” said Torres, who is now a company member and the lead titled actress of “Estrella Cruz [the junkyard queen].”

In 2013, Halcyon Theatre found the missing link to their company’s overall mission by opening the Radical Hospitality program. The theater holds a significant number of seats for no-cost admission on a first come first served basis for each performance.

“And given where we are in Albany Park and the fact that we do have a few lower income families, it immediately drives home with the fact that we want to offer theater to anybody who wants to see it,” Torres added. “It shouldn’t be a privilege, but a right to be able to see and enjoy art.”

In order to continue the Radical Hospitality program, the board hosts fundraising events during the year including their annual gala, Night of Flight, which honors two to three community members with the Iris Award.

The award this year recognizes Free Street Theater Artistic Director Coya Paz and Victory Gardens Theater Artistic Director Chay Yew at the gala Friday night. At $75 a ticket, the event has helped doubled the theater’s annual budget for the past three years.

“If the play doesn’t show our mission values, it’s not considered for touring. One of the things is that our entire theater [repertoire] is written by women. Two out of three are women of color. And most of the cast members are artists of color,” said Adams, who is the director of this upcoming play. “What we do is connect people. Making plays is how we do that.”

Estrella Cruz
Allyce Torres as Estrella Cruz (Tony Adams)

“Estrella Cruz [the junkyard queen]” previews on Thursday. The production runs through Feb. 27 at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church.

“[The play’s] written specifically about this Latina woman, which is not normally what people think about when they think of Greek myths,” Torres explained. “It parallels Persephone’s journey as a Cuban immigrant and talks about that experience, which is something that the people in our neighborhood could really relate to. And it’s something I can relate to as a first generation Mexican-American.”

Photo at top: Allyce Torres as Estrella Cruz and Kelly Opalko as Bette Davis (Photo by Tony Adams)