‘Port Of Entry’ Celebrates Neighborhood And Its Immigrant Families
Port of Entry

‘Port Of Entry’ Celebrates Neighborhood And Its Immigrant Families

Block Club Chicago // Leen Yassine: Performed across 12,000 square feet, the immersive youth-led production at Albany Park Theater Project is based on the real-life stories of Albany Park neighbors.

ALBANY PARK — An Albany Park youth theater ensemble has some of Chicago’s hardest-to-get tickets this spring with “Port of Entry,” an immersive play that dives into the lives of immigrant families in the neighborhood.

The show, produced by Albany Park Theater Project and set inside a 1920s warehouse, doesn’t have a traditional stage or seating.

Instead, a cast of high school students leads audiences into what looks like a courtyard apartment. Each room feels like a lived-in home, offering sneak peeks into the lives of Albany Park families from Mexico, the Philippines and beyond as they have dinner, make crafts, play games and reminisce on their lives back home.

Tyler Lackey, Samantha Gallegos, Mu Lay Ku in Port of Entry. Photo: Eric Strom and Sarah Joyce

“The show is all around you,” said Miguel Rodriguez, co-executive director of Albany Park Theater Project. “You yourself as an audience member are part of the production. … When you’re sitting across someone at a dining table, for example, and the actor turns to you and asks you for your opinion or help, there’s just something so human and intimate about that experience that I think theatergoers are craving.”

“Port of Entry” debuted last summer to high praise and returned this spring after a brief hiatus. It runs through June 16 at Albany Park Theater Project, 3547 W. Montrose Ave.

Most “Port of Entry” tickets have sold out, but last-minute cancellations are expected for nearly every show, according to the theater. Tickets are on sliding scale of $35-$140. Sign up for ticket alerts here.

“Port of Entry” weaves together real-life stories from Albany Park neighbors, which Albany Park Theater Project collected over the course of 27 years, said Rodriguez, co-executive director of the ensemble.

That includes recent arrivals and families who have lived in the community for generations, as far back as the theater company’s “humble beginnings” in 1997, Rodriguez said.

The show was in the works for five years before its 2023 premiere. It features more than 300 crew members, including youth performers, adult creators and construction workers, Rodriguez said.

In partnership with Third Rail Projects, a Brooklyn-based collective specializing in immersive theater, “Port of Entry” brings the neighborhood to life across 12,000 square feet and three floors.

People have traveled from other states and countries to see the show “because they’re die-hard Third Rail Projects fans … or love immersive theater,” Rodriguez said.

Performances are intimate, with seats for just 28 audience members.

“This is, to be cheesy for a moment, an actual labor of love, and an actual love letter to this community and to the immigrants who live, who have lived and continue to live in this community,” Rodriguez said. “For those two hours and 15 minutes, you actually believe you’ve been dropped into these people’s lives.”

Rodriguez, a Chicago native who has taught theater in New York City and Chicago for about 20 years, got his start at Albany Park Theater Project in 1999, when he was 14.

“I saw posters around the hallways that said ‘theater workshops’ or ‘theater club’ or something like that,” Rodriguez said. “But the thing that I remember most vividly is it said, ‘No experience necessary.’ And so I showed up and I was, in fact, the only kid who showed up that day, and I just hung out with one of the directors for two hours.”

The experience was so meaningful that Rodriguez continued with the theater throughout high school.

Aylin Esquivel and Xytlaly Garcia in Port of Entry. Photo: Eric Strom and Sarah Joyce.

“To be able to have these people who were like, ‘You are already an artist and you can just get up there and do stuff,’ was empowering. Because at the time I was actually looking for community, I was looking for opportunities,” Rodriguez said.

Albany Park Theater Project is slated to work with more than 700 students across five Chicago schools, impacting kids just like Rodriguez, he said. Over the course of each program, students devise their own original productions like “Port of Entry.”

“We also go into schools to help kids see a better version of themselves and of each other and of their community,” he said. “At the very beginning, you’ll meet these kids who don’t know what theater is or have no idea that they’re about to create a show. And then through the process of theater games, storytelling activities and devising workshops, we actually get them prepared to perform.”

The theater’s goal is to uplift the neighborhood through “honest and real” storytelling — which the company believes is a transformative vehicle for change, Rodriguez said.

Beatriz Gigante in Port of Entry. Photo: Eric Strom and Sarah Joyce

“We’re constantly taking a chance on young theater and artmakers,” Rodriguez said. “Whether that’s the high schoolers who are shy and who never thought they would be on stage, let alone an immersive theater show, to … stage managers and lighting designers. [Albany Park Theater Project] has always taken a chance to ensure that people who are not represented in storytelling or in the field are given an opportunity.”

While Albany Park has always been a “port of entry” for immigrants, this show is especially meaningful given the recent influx of migrants from Central America, Rodriguez said.

“We get to meet these families and these students, and we get to share our practices to just bring a little bit of joy and hope into their sphere,” he said. “This show just gives me fuel and fire to continue to do what I’m doing because it’s important. Even if it’s just a little bit or drop in the bucket, it’s important.”