Reclaiming Pilsen’s raw history

From “Baby I Need Your Loving” by the Four Tops to “Money” by Cardi B, everything about this chilling production, including the score, muddles the gap between past and present. An immersive, soul-stirring play by Ricardo Gamboa, directed by Katrina Dion, The Wizards explores the city’s haunting past, reminding us that we are still living in it. 

The Wizards Through 11/26: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM; no performance Thu 11/24 (Thanksgiving), APO Cultural Center, 1438 W. 18th St., 45 reservations available each night through Eventbrite for sliding-scale ($20-$60), ten pay-what-you-can walk-up tickets per show.

In the play, following the 2016 presidential election, Amado and Sam, a Brown and Black genderqueer couple played by Gamboa and real-life partner Sean James William Parris, return to Amado’s hometown of Chicago after surviving a hate crime in New York. In their apartment in Pilsen, they discover a Ouija board, which connects them to the ghosts of four Mexican American teens who formed The Wizards, a Motown cover band, in the 1960s, only to lose their lives in 1971.

As Gamboa explores themes like queerness, racialized and sexualized violence, justice, and radical spirituality through the horror stories of these boys, they reclaim the raw history of Pilsen that has been whitewashed by gentrification.

The production (part of the fifth annual Destinos: Chicago International Latino Theater Festival) is hosted in Pilsen’s APO Cultural Center, a family-run site that has cultivated social activism and the arts in the city’s Latino communities since 1962. The community space is transformed into Amado and Sam’s thrilling home. While we sit in their living room, the characters move all around, forcing us to look wherever the action occurs, whether it’s above us on the balcony or behind us through the kitchen pass-through.

Dion pursues an atmospheric style that reveals omens in flickering midcentury modern lamps and records of Mexican American empowerment in Chicano-inspired murals. In her director’s note, she writes to the audience, “You may even be physically uncomfortable.” But as disturbing as white supremacy is, I can say that I did not feel uncomfortable once. The Wizards made me cringe, rage, laugh, and (almost) cry, but its greatest strength was its ability to make me feel safe. 

The cast, with the help of fight and intimacy choreographers Greg Geffrard and Sheryl Williams, navigated these heavy, political questions with empathy and care. And considering we were invited into Amado and Sam’s home to actively engage in these crucial conversations, being uncomfortable wasn’t even an option. 

Even though the story is largely about the history of the Mexican American community in Chicago, there are cultural elements that everyone can identify with. In my own experience as an Arab American, I found Amado’s refusal to go to therapy, which alluded to the stigma of mental health in POC communities, to be hilariously relatable. I was also drawn to the four boys who reminded me of home. 

In regards to the ending, I wish I had gotten closure, but closure is not a privilege we should expect, considering it is often stolen from marginalized communities. If you do anything this spooky season, make sure to see The Wizards. It will haunt you in the best way.

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