Ali Barthwell’s work is concerned with unearthing truth.
She says that truthfulness is at the core of what it means to be a Chicago creative. Ali is a co-founder of Wakandacon, a three-day celebration of Afro-Futurism and pop culture held in downtown Chicago. She’s a writer, freelance TV critic, and performer. Her work has been featured Chicago Magazine, Vulture, AV Club, New York Magazine, and the Chicago Tribune to name a few. She’s appeared in Netflix’s Easy and Win it All and Huffington Post’s Here to Make Friends. Her work with Second City includes being a Training Center Instructor and a student in the Second City Training Center Directing Program.
Ali dropped by the Vocalo studios to give us her take on what Chicago Sounds Like…
Where in the city did you grow up?
When I was born I lived in Oak Park for about three years, then we moved to River Forest.
Where do you live now? Describe your neighborhood?
I moved back home after graduation. Now I live in Lakeview. I like where I am cause I can get everywhere that I need to go. I’m close enough that on a nice day I can walk to all the new restaurants, as they are rapidly re-gentrifying Wrigleyville, but I’m far enough away that I don’t get drunk Wrigleyville people. My street is relatively quiet. I mainly like taking a walk over to the whole foods and, like, making an afternoon of it.
What do you love about Chicago?
I really like how excited we are, as a city, to be in our city. When the summertime hits everyone wants to be outside and sitting on the patio, or walking around and being on the lakefront. It’s a unique city that lets you participate in it fully…the lakefront is a free thing that everyone can go to. Each beach feels different…. there’s all this public space we get to participate in and sort of own.
Talk about your work with Second City and Wakandacon?
I teach with Second City in a couple of different capacities. I teach in their training center and am a student in the Second City Training Center Director Program.
Wakandacon came about because my brothers and I obviously saw Black Panther. Collectively we probably saw it ten or twelve times, shared between the three of us. After one of the times we went to see it together my brother said ‘I have an idea. Wakandacon. I don’t know what it means, I don’t know what it is, but that’s a word that we wanna use.’
We said ok let’s figure out what that means, or what that could be. Originally we thought it was going to be a one day celebration with some panels, maybe some workshops. My older brother made a logo and made a real quick sign up sheet. We said if 1,000 people sign up we’ll go ahead and do it. In the first week, about 9,000 people signed up…
How has the city shaped your art, your career or your mission?
The city shapes me cause there’s a real desire to tell the truth in Chicago. There’s all kinds of stereotypes about our politicians. But I believe the citizens of Chicago really believe in being truthful and forthright. There’s a legacy of so many women and men who were whistleblowers and truth tellers, using their work to allow others to tell the truth is very important to me.
Improv started in Chicago, and it came out of social work done by women in tenement houses with children that were immigrants. The foundation of sketch and comedy and improvisation is social justice work. It was to allow immigrant children a space to creatively and non-competitively play and then allow them to make art.
Chicago has a rich history of wanting art t that’s created here to say something and mean something.
At the end of the day, what would you like to have given back to the community?
I only hope that I can continue to shepherd other people’s truth into the world as a teacher and a performer and a director. To use a truth that I feel or I see to connect with an audience. Our art has never not been political, comedy has never not been about telling the truth or allowing people to tell the truth.
Photography by Tom Gavin.
In our ongoing series, This Is What Chicago Sounds Like, we feature the voices and people who contribute to our city’s rich cultural diversity. This month we celebrate women in Chicago who are doing incredible work in the city they love. Check back here for more interviews with amazing Chicagoans!