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 Dancehighlighted the power of movement in organizing for racial justice. Alexander Khimushin’s gallery exhibition The World in Faceshonored the cultures of Indigenous Peoples, and Basement Poetry’s workshop, “Restoring Petals,” used literary arts as a method for personal and social healing.
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.