By Fabrizio O. Almeida
“I might be exactly the right kind of person for a project like this, ” says 30-year-old James Wilke, the director of “SoloHomo4,” a full-length evening of original solo performances by gay writers and artists running for two nights next week at the Bailiwick Arts Center. Hardly a declaration born of hubris, Wilke’s statement seems apt given the various artistic hats he’s worn in both Chicago and Los Angeles since graduating from Northwestern University in 1997. With a resume that includes successful stints in the worlds of theater, independent film and music videos, to name just a few, he’s one of those all-around creative types who, artistically speaking, gets around, hates complacency and defies easy categorization. Alas, these are qualities that help when tackling that ever-shifting and encompassing artistic medium known as performance art. To quote über-performance artist Laurie Anderson (via über-solo performance director Jo Bonney in “Extreme Exposure: An Anthology of Solo Performance Texts from the Twentieth Century”): “The best thing about the term ‘performance art’ is that it’s so ambiguous; it includes just about anything you might want to do.” For the solo homos involved in next week’s presentations—Wilke and the all-male cast of performers are openly gay—this will translate into a two-hour evening incorporating monologue, multimedia, musical cabaret, stand-up comedy, a monodrama and a partridge in a pear tree.
“SoloHomo,” which borrows its title from a 1998 literary anthology of queer performance texts entitled “O Solo Homo,” is the brainchild of 45-year-old Chicago native and “SoloHomo” co-producer Mike Rogers, a longtime aficionado of the genre whose local credits include last year’s installment of Live Bait Theatre’s “Filet of Solo,” an annual affair that provides visibility to emerging and established solo performance artists. But three years ago, Rogers, like many before him, had to create his own performance opportunities. Through his association with NewTown Writers, a Chicago-based gay writing group that last year celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary of nurturing queer literary voices, Rogers was around when colleagues produced “Working Stiff,” a showcase for queer-based material and its performers. Equally inspired to do the same, and with the support of the folks behind “Working Stiff,” Rogers and co-producer Timothy Rey, another longtime Windy City solo artist, delivered the first “SoloHomo” in Bailiwick’s loft space for one night only in 2003. “It started out so amateurish and very informal,” says Rogers, “And there were maybe twelve people in the audience total,” he recalls with a laugh. But word-of-mouth, a tight-knit Chicago solo performance community and increased attendance for the second installment eventually helped “SoloHomo3” land Bailiwick’s larger studio space downstairs for a two-night sold-out run last year. By this time, however, Rogers was more than just a little exhausted. “I took a shot at it [as co-producer, performer and director], and it was good, but it needed to improve and to be brought up a few notches. We needed direction, desperately.” Enter Wilke and a chance meeting last October with Rogers, who immediately thought the young director’s energy and ideas could transform the promising but “raw” evening of random monologues into “more of a polished product.” Wilke concurs: “Each piece lends itself to a certain theatricality that I thought would have been wasted with a lights-up-presentational-lights-down approach.” Wilke has also carefully arranged the order of the pieces so that collectively they might give the audience an emotional ride akin to that of a play. And musical transitions, using everything from well-known songs to obscure mood music, will be the glue that holds the pieces together.
Whatever the overall visual and musical stamp Wilke gives the evening, the pieces should be memorable for their stories and the quality of their story telling. Promising to explore different aspects of the gay experience, “SoloHomo4” will cover familiar thematic stomping grounds from love to loss, albeit through diverse narrative strands and modes of expression: “Judgement,” by playwright Don Bapst, has the author playing three characters in a dark drama of seventeenth-century European persecution; “La Maquina de los Sueños (The Machine of Dreams),” a piece by New Mexico-based visual artist Patrick Weishampel (the only artist brought on board by Wilke and not by Rogers), will feature projections and five television sets each broadcasting a different film that has been independently shot and edited; “Dorm Life/Off Campus,” a narrative celebrating the lighter side of life, will be delivered by a transvestite named Cookie Crumbles. Local actor and performance artist Richard Richards (making his final Chicago stage appearance before moving to Boston in April) and Columbia College Chicago film professor and author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking” Joe Steiff, among others, will also be featured. “You’re only paying $10 (for admission), but you’re going to get more ‘bang for your buck,’” promises Wilke. If that current roster is any indication, “SoloHomo4” may very well deliver.
“SoloHomo4” plays two evenings at the Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 West Belmont, (773)883-1090, on March 13 and 14, at 7:30pm. $10.