When my cousins and I were smaller than we are now, most of our family gatherings were capped by shows that we put on in the family room in front of the fireplace – or on the pool deck across from the house. The subjects of these performances varied – when we were very small, it was just two of us dancing what we thought were ballets, while later they turned into full scale spoofs of television shows with a cast of 9. I, invariably, was in charge of the theatrics, because I was the oldest.
The Fourth of July was always one of our biggest shows and it seems my great-grandmother Rona, her brother Stanley and their friends felt much the same way about it. This is only one of several Fourth of July photographs I have of Rona and her family and in all of them there is some kind of show going on – whether it be parade and pageant, as above, or a dance performance, or a set of tableaux.
Above, Rona is the girl curtsying in the midst of a makeshift boardwalk/stage at the 1914 South Shore Improvement Association celebration, while her brother Stanley is the four year old Indian on a tricycle. While this doesn’t look like a structured performance like the ones I directed, it’s clear that the children here are promenading for an audience composed of parents, neighbors, older siblings and friends. It’s also clear that adults took more of an interest in assisting with this production than my aunts and uncles and parents usually did with our shows – someone had to lay down that planking on the grass. Maybe later it would be a dance floor for adults celebrating the Fourth – the party definitely must have gone on past dark, as evidenced by the need for paper lanterns strung around.
The community aspect of this performance of Rona and Stanley’s is something that was also lacking in the performances my cousins and I put on in our grandparents’ backyard on the Fourth of July. For us, the only audience and the only community we performed for was our family, but for Rona and the other children whose parents were part of the South Shore Improvement Association, the audience was much larger. I don’t know what it would have been like to be a part of a community like this – to live in a neighborhood in a big city (Chicago, in this case) yet feel such kinship and belonging with the people who lived next door.
When she grew up, Rona went to elocution school and performed a one-woman show for her graduation piece. I wonder if performing for the neighborhood improvement association helped her prepare for that day or if it was part of what informed her decision and desire to act. What is certain is that this love for performance is something she passed on to her great-grandchildren without knowing it, and that I can see each one of us in the smile on her face as she curtsies to someone in the crowd.