A man in a black and white polka-dot suit waved two torches in each hand, thrusting them into the air as a crowd of thousands chanted “burn it down, burn it down.” He stood in front of a particular one-room wooden house, made of purple, blue and grey circles with crescents sliced into the surface.
The torch-bearer jumped up onto the steps, looked at the crowd with a taunting expression, and tossed the torches into a window. The house swept up into flames, its bright tongues dancing high into the black sky.
This was the main attraction at the Great Chicago Fire Festival. On the sandy dunes of the Northerly Island and hosted by the theatrical company Redmoon, the festival showcased a number of art, music and dance performances as the sun dipped beneath the skyline, and when night came, performed a cultish burning of a ceremonial house and a tremendous firework show that finished the evening.
But the point of the show, according to Redmoon, was not just to dazzle Chicagoans; through all of the evening’s events, the festival sought to unite Chicago’s neighborhoods and to celebrate the city’s resurgence following the destructive fire of 1871.
“It was spectacular,” Kelly Askam, a DePaul alum who lives in West Rogers Park said. “It’s a celebration of life and people and community.”
Last year, Redmoon hosted the same festival at the mouth of the Chicago River. They built a similar house on the water, but due to cold and wet weather, among other undetermined reasons, the construction failed to burn completely. This year’s lavish show—last year’s costed $2 million—could be seen as an attempt to redeem the festival’s failure in 2014.
“I think the neighborhood part didn’t work out (last year). It missed the point because it was about the fire, not the neighborhoods,” Holly Swiers, who teaches at Lake Forest College and lives in North Central, said.
“I think coming out to the Northerly Island made it more festive,” Swiers said. “I like that there is more of a focus on the dancers and the stages.”
Up until the evening’s finale began, performers showcased their neighborhood culture and talent on a series of stages. In traditional Mexican fashion, women in bright yellow and red dresses danced with black-clad men wearing sombreros. They hopped together, the men with their hands clasped behind their backs and the women bracing theirs on hips.
A man wearing nothing but underwear grappled and posed on a hoop that was suspended high in the air by a crane, and an old-fashioned record player produced ambient music. The voices of a nearby Spoken Word show could be heard, producing a meshed sound that spoke to the festival’s message of unique culture and a unified city.
Snapping fingers on a suspended stage that resembled a boxing ring, a men’s gospel quartet sang with attitude. Nearby, a Puerto Rican group played zesty Caribbean music: some pounding drums, while others sang in Spanish. Occasionally a singer would step out in front and dance, locking eyes with a drummer to sync his or her steps with the beat.
Once the blood-red sun dipped down behind the skyline, the mood of the festival changed. Musicians left the stage, and police officers spread out to clear people off of paved roads.
The master of ceremonies, a Baptist reverend wearing a pin stripe suit, introduced a group of people from the “First Nation,” who explained that the word “Chicago” is based on a word from their own language.
Suddenly, along one of the pathways, dark shapes carrying approximately 20-foot torches marched through the crowd and onto the stage, where the “First Nation” chanted and beat drums.
The music died down and was replaced by the sound of drums: specifically, the Chicago Bull’s drum line. As the clean column marched to the stage, a truck rolled out, pulling a stage that held a windmill-like contraption that spun percussion instruments, which the drummers hit as they went by. Protruding from the drums stood a long pipe that blasted fire into the air.
As the ceremonial house was lit and burned, the crowd whooped and hollered in excitement.
“Burn baby burn,” someone in the dark said.
As the fire burned down and firemen controlled its brooding flames, screens were set up that displayed faces of Chicagoans, accompanied by a quote.
“I celebrate having a home,” one said. “I overcame the devil,” said another.
Slow, emotional music guided the flames down, and in front of it volunteers set up tall boards that resembled the buildings of the Resilience Skyline. The reverend explained that this symbolized the will of Chicagoans to overcome not only the fire, but of everyday struggles today.
Bobby Huggins, who manned one of the spotlights and lives in Logan Square, said he was very pleased with how the festival went.
“The energy was really cool,” he said. “It was great to have so many people here.”
“You can’t see something like this for free very often,” Askam said as he glanced at the now-dark stage.
Chicagoans walked in good spirits out of festival field. They filed past the nearby docks, and shimmering across the water, stood the ever-lasting Chicago skyline.
Photos by Garrett Duncan / The DePaulia