AVONDALE — The duo behind Uprising Theater — a nonprofit spotlighting Palestinian stories — wants to open their own venue in Avondale, a neighborhood that carries personal significance for the founder.
Iymen Chehade and Maren Rosenberg are aiming to open a theater and an adjoining coffee shop at 2905 N. Milwaukee Ave. Chehade founded Uprising Theater and the duo are co-artistic directors.
The one-story building has been in Chehade’s family for 50 years. Chehade inherited it about seven years ago in hopes of eventually making it Uprising Theater’s home base.
Chehade and Rosenberg are trying to raise a few hundred thousand dollars in grants and donations to upgrade the building. If all goes according to plan and they’re able to fund the renovation, the theater — and the coffee shop — could open next year.
“We have the community on board, we have a building, we have a 501c3 — everything is in place. We just need to make sure our roof doesn’t leak,” Chehade said.
Founded in 2014, Chehade’s Uprising Theater has taken off in the past couple of years. Rosenberg joined in 2019, and the two partnered with other theater companies and organizations, like Escape Artistry, Ashtar Theatre and San José State University, on some readings.
They planned to stage a full production of the play “Returning to Haifa” at Prop Thtr in fall 2020, but they were forced to cancel their plans due to the coronavirus pandemic. The pair pivoted to providing face masks, other protective equipment and free meals to hard-hit neighborhoods.
Now, as the city reopens, the two are focused on taking their nonprofit to the next level and establishing a brick-and-mortar theater on Avondale’s Milwaukee Avenue. The coffee shop would help support the theater, which will serve as a home base for their productions.
The project would breathe new life into a building that was most recently used for storage.
Chehade’s father, who immigrated to Chicago from Palestine in 1963, bought the building decades ago, along with many others in the area. The building once was home to a Polish community center, and before that, a nickelodeon, or silent movie theater.
More vacancies have popped up on that stretch of Milwaukee Avenue. Uprising Theater could help provide the economic jolt the area needs, Chehade said.
“I want to ensure that not only [my father’s] legacy continues in the area, but that the community benefits from it the way they should,” he said.
Chehade has taught courses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Columbia College and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for several years. In 2014, Columbia College administrators canceled his class, which set off a battle between Chehade and the administrators. That fight is part of what inspired him to launch a theater company dedicated to telling Palestinian peoples’ stories.
Chehade’s father also died around that time.
“I thought, ‘What a great legacy to him.’ He came from Palestine in 1963 and worked really hard,” Chehade said.
Moving to Avondale would help Chehade and Rosenberg build on the momentum they’ve created over the years and create a “space where voices that have been systemically marginalized are not silenced,” Rosenberg said. In addition to Palestinians, the duo want to highlight the stories of other marginalized people through plays, readings and film screenings.
“We’re excited to be a cultural hub, sort of like a wheel center with a lot of different spokes,” Rosenberg said.
The project has taken on a greater meaning since more than 250 Palestinians, including at least 60 children, were killed in 11 days of Israeli airstrikes in May, according to the UN. Rockets fired by Hamas, the party governing Gaza since winning the last permitted election in 2006, killed 13 Israelis. A ceasefire was reached May 20.
“The tide is shifting when it comes to Palestinian issues … . Now more than ever, we need to amplify those voices in order to create change,” Chehade said.
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