Chicago Humanities Festival 2021 has a star lineup — Ron Howard, Teju Cole — but what, no fall theme?
CHICAGO — The Chicago Humanities Festival always likes a good theme. Since it started 32 years ago, every single one of its fall programming seasons has happened beneath a very broad umbrella — Time, Power, Vision, Birth & Death, Peace & War. So it’s a little disorienting to realize, for the first time in its history, the CHF’s signature fall season — its first (largely) in-person fall festival since the pandemic began — has no real theme.
And yet, root around its offerings and it might as well have been called: HOME.
The CHF will have its usual celeb-studded galaxy of actors, artists, authors, politicians. Ron Howard and his brother Clint on Oct. 13. Design star Debbie Millman on Nov. 6. The great essayist Teju Cole on Nov. 13. Alan Cumming on Nov. 12. Broadway’s Sutton Foster will discuss her love of crafting — crochet, cross-stitch — as self-care on Oct. 23.
Yet if there’s any wide, binding thread among the nearly 30 events scheduled across Chicago from Sept. 14 to Dec. 9 — with more expected to be announced soon — it’s Chicago as a cultural, creative center. Think playwright Sarah Ruhl (a North Shore native), set for Oct. 10. And the extraordinary South Side jazz singer and curator Tammy McCann on Oct. 9. Sen. Tammy Duckworth offers (virtual) conversation on Sept. 25. On Oct. 2, at Blanc Gallery in Bronzeville, there’s a talk on the famed Wall of Respect (at Langley and 43rd) and its place in the Black Arts Movement. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos and memoirist Dawn Turner — both alums of the Chicago Tribune — discuss their new books (Osnos on Sept. 25, Turner on Oct. 9). On Oct. 10, the never-boring Third Coast Percussion presents a new film version of “Archetypes,” its collaboration with the guitarist Sergio Assad and composer Clarice Assad. Speaking of percussion: Chicago’s Makaya McCraven, a self-proclaimed “beat scientist,” talks and performs on Oct. 2. And speaking of ambitious: Sept. 25 offers the first of a three-part series on the Great Lakes, starting with “Who Owns the Waters of the Upper Midwest?” Because the pandemic got in the way of a celebration of Angela Jackson, Illinois’ latest poet laureate, CHF and the Poetry Foundation will host one at the Logan Center at University of Chicago, Nov. 13.
It’s a lot.
And a lot smaller than festivals past, when a single October or November day could mean furious sprinting between a half-dozen venues and onstage conversations. “Everything is the same and everything now is different, at the same time,” said Alison Cuddy, artistic director. “Which partly means, you meet people where they are.” So, no theater hopping this fall. But one or two live events each week, through early December.
Which is better than the entirely virtual 2020. By last June, however, they were wading into live events again. But a fall schedule only seemed possible by the middle of summer. They wanted an “in-person experience,” she said, “but not at the expense of safety.” Some performers are still not comfortable traveling. Some authors are still doing virtual book tours. “We always have an emphasis on Chicago, but once it became clear the opportunity to gather again was there, we saw it all about celebrating the city and its creativity. And there’s been a lot of amazing things bubbling in the last couple of years.”
Like Rockford filmmaker Bing Liu, whose “Minding the Gap” was a recent Oscar nominee for best documentary — he’s talking with skateboarder/author Kyle Beachy on Oct. 10. Rising young artist Zakkiyyah Najeebah Dumas-O’Neal — whose works on Black identity, queerness and connection are becoming ubiquitous at local exhibitions — is in conversation on Nov. 6 with Vocalo host Ayana Contreras, herself the author of a sharp upcoming book, “Energy Never Dies,” about optimism and guts in Black Chicago.
There’s a lot of catch-up to do.
As usual, the Humanities Festival will unfold across the city — locations this year include the Field Museum, Bronzeville’s Harold Washington Cultural Center, Columbia College, the Music Box. But a handful of virtual events will remain. Cuddy said the organization had “a three-year digital initiative” before the pandemic; once lockdowns began and traffic surged for their online archive of past events, those three years became three weeks. That said, she also suspects “some degree exhaustion with digital-only events.”
So, if you want to attend in person, you will need proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.
“I wouldn’t say it’s back to normal, but it is back together, in any way we can.”
Chicago Humanities Festival 2021 begins Sep. 21 and continues through the fall at various locations; complete lineup and more announcements to come at chicagohumanities.org.