Festival Unbound’s The Most Beautiful Home…Maybe Asks Poignant, Painful Questions About Our Housing Crisis

From September 27th-October 1st, Touchstone Theatre held its fifth annual Festival Unbound, a hyper-local arts celebration full of community workshops, theatrical performances, and visual art exhibitions. Since its inception in 2019, Festival Unbound has used the arts to explore the identity of the Lehigh Valley. Guided by this mission, the festival seeks to understand our community’s shared values with an eye toward building our future. This year’s events broached a wide spectrum of themes under this umbrella of community-building. For instance, a performance titled Changing the Race Dance highlighted the power of movement in organizing for racial justice. Alexander Khimushin’s gallery exhibition The World in Faces honored the cultures of Indigenous Peoples, and Basement Poetry’s workshop, “Restoring Petals,” used literary arts as a method for personal and social healing.  

Pictured: Participant-designed flags hanging along the river outside of Ice House. 
A green strip of the flag reads: “I can be a leader in my community. I can do it. I will do it.”

The festival concluded with a performance of The Most Beautiful Home…Maybe, an interactive theater experience, which enabled audience members to imagine alternatives to our ongoing housing crisis. According to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission (LVPC), over 81,000 (or 3.3 in 10) households in the area are considered cost-burdened, meaning that these individuals and families must pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Meanwhile, new and projected developments focus disproportionately on luxury and student housing rather than affordable options. Particularly on Bethlehem’s South Side, gentrification has worsened racial and economic disparities among residents and led to ongoing displacement. This theater project took an unconventional tactic in addressing these issues, disarming its audience through song and dance. In doing so, it successfully brought a multigenerational segment of the community into a conversation about how to address the housing crisis in the Lehigh Valley. 

Pictured: Ang(ela) Bey, as the character Zebra, singing to the audience. 

In the show, sparkly, fabulously dressed zebras created a nonlinear narrative to explain how we got here, using time travel machines to take us back to key moments in U.S. history. They began with the 2008 mortgage crisis that cost millions of Americans their homes. Fifteen years later, the zebras explained, many residents of the Lehigh Valley have still not recovered from this economic recession. From here, the audience was separated into two groups. One went all the way back to the earliest days of our nation’s founding when European settler colonizers forcibly took land from the Lenape people in our region. My side of the audience traveled to the 1940s where we learned about the racial discrimination faced by U.S. veterans returning from WWII. While the G.I. Bill stipulated that all soldiers would receive housing, this benefit was not ultimately extended to many African Americans who should have qualified. The zebras showed maps of redlining, the discriminatory practice of denying mortgages to borrows based on race or ethnicity. 

Pictured: Ms. Latrice/Distinctly Unique, playing the character of Ze-Nae, gives a presentation on the history of redlining and the G.I. Bill. Behind, William George, playing the character of Zebdrix, holds up cards mimicking a black-and-white television screen. 

Pictured (from left-to-right): William George (Zebdrix), Thalia Eddy (Zendra), Dominique Shelby (Zeb), Ms. Latrice/Distinctly Unique (Ze-Nae), and Ang(ela) Bey (Zebra). 

Having discussed the past and present of the housing crisis, the zebras then turned our attention to the possibilities of the future through a small-group board game activity. Each team was given a large, pink doughnut board and a bag of sprinkles. The sprinkles represented the components that would go into creating a different housing situation. These were specific beliefs, policies, and cultural influences that could affect change. Our job was to choose which ones were considered the most important. These sprinkles included broad concepts like ‘Racial Justice’ alongside very specific cultural artifacts like a meme from The Simpsons that read: “Oh, wow, windows. I don’t think I can afford this place.” In the process of choosing which sprinkles were the most essential to the project, we had to negotiate our positions. Our group ended up writing on one of the blank sprinkles the belief that ‘housing is a human right’ because we felt this encompassed what most of the group valued. One representative from each of the groups was then led up onto stage to take part in a full-group panel discussion about our decisions. 
Pictured: Donut board game about revolutionizing our housing structure; sprinkles on the board include ‘Racial Justice,’ ‘Our Community Is A Safe Haven For All,’ and ‘Mixed Income Neighborhoods’. 
Pictured: One of the many informational placards posted around the show about different types of housing; this one describes public housing.

As much as the show pointed its audience toward an optimistic, expansive view of what could come next, it also interjected sobering reminders that even if systemic change is actualized, it may be too late to help certain people in our community. Toward the end of the show, William George—who had previously been portraying the character of Zebdrix—began walking around the space, holding an empty glass. Adapting a new persona, George greeted different audience members by name, acting now like the host of a house party to which we had all been invited. As his monologue progressed, the artifice of the performance dropped. He spoke about his own experiences. “I don’t know where I’m going to live when I’m old,” he repeated multiple times. “And I’m already old.” Through this, the audience sat transfixed. It was unclear to any of us how much of what we were seeing was scripted. At one point, someone from off-stage asked if he was okay. 


Coming toward the close of an already experimental and deeply personal show, George’s speech electrified the air with a sense of simultaneous discomfort and wonder, which bled into the final moments of participation. “Don’t leave me up here alone,” George said, urging members of the audience to share their own housing-related experiences. A couple of volunteers spoke about experiences of homelessness and grief. When Ang(ela) Bey (Zebra) regained the stage, she addressed specific audience members by name, asking a variety of pointed questions about our belief in change and our investment in the process. The show ended with two success stories from City Councilwoman Olga Negrón and Ashleigh Strange, who encouraged audience members to host housing unstable youth through the The Synergy Project. This outreach program provides services, supplies, and referrals to runaway, homeless, nomadic, and street youth under 24 in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding areas. 


Unabashedly political, The Most Wonderful Home…Maybe exemplifies the potential for community art to destabilize our perceptions of ourselves, one another, and the structures around us. Perhaps the biggest gift of this production was its insistence that no one can be a passive observer sitting in a dim row—instead, we are all actors in the ongoing drama of democracy. Changing the course of the Lehigh Valley’s housing crisis will require understanding both the stories and the statistics of displacement. The show’s experiential format demonstrates the power of art to foster connections between community members—people who otherwise might never have met—in the service of imagining new systems together. 

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