The original ensemble of Teatro Vista. Gustavo Mellado is second row, second from left. Credit: Courtesy Teatro Vista

As a year filled with many losses in Chicago’s theater community wound down, word came in late December that Gustavo Mellado, a founding ensemble member of Teatro Vista, had died at age 69. 

A December 29 tribute on the company’s Facebook page noted that Mellado was “a wonderful actor with a beautiful singing voice,” and also noted that he “was known for his great sense of fun. Being in his presence guaranteed fits of laughter and quite often, spontaneous dancing. He instigated uncontrollable giggling during rehearsals and was always ready with an obscure old Hollywood reference and his inimitable cigar smoking mime bit.”

Mellado appeared in many shows with Teatro Vista since its founding in 1991, as well as with a wide array of Chicago companies, including the now-defunct Next and Latino Chicago theater companies; in a 2003 Victory Gardens production of Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics that featured many Teatro Vista regulars (and coincidentally, was set in a cigar factory in Florida in the early 20th century); and at the Goodman in Karen Zacarias’s The Sins of Sor Juana. He also spent some time in California, where he performed with the pioneering Teatro Campesino, the Western Stage, and San Jose Stage. Mellado appeared in television shows (including a recurring role in Prison Break) and independent films, winning a 2004 Chicago Community Cinema award for his role in Karen Friedberg’s short The King of the Tango.

Born in Monclova, Mexico, in 1952, Mellado graduated from high school in Hammond, Indiana, and studied theater at Calumet College of East Chicago. But his work with Teatro Vista is where he really found his artistic home—and helped build one for the next generation of artists.

Sandra Marquez, now a Steppenwolf ensemble member, first worked with Mellado in Teatro Vista’s 1996 production of Octavio Solis’s family crime drama, Santos & Santos. It was also her first show in Chicago. “He played the father, as he often did. Especially early on, he was almost always playing the dad.” She adds, “He was such a fun-loving guy and really had a childlike enjoyment of people and the rehearsal process. And that was infectious. His ability to just enjoy and have fun was an energy that was so lovely to be around. He was so generous. 

“He would often host parties and host meetings, and even though at meetings we might be reading plays and deciding what we wanted to do next, there was always food at his house, and it was always delicious food. And so there was a sort of a generous nurturing side of him as well.”

Teatro Vista and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble coproduced Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue in 2006 at the Steppenwolf Garage. Mark Ulrich, an ensemble member of Rivendell, wasn’t in that production, but he and Mellado became friends working together on The Sins of Sor Juana at the Goodman. “I think because we were not that far off in age, we shared cultural reference points and shared a sense of humor. Gustavo had a great sense of humor. He was a very, very funny guy and that’s the thing I loved about him and the thing I remember most is just him laughing and us laughing together about just goofy stuff.”

The pantomimed smoking bit referenced in the Teatro Vista memorial is something that Ulrich remembers as well. “He had this running joke where he would smoke a fake cigarette. And it was just this little shtick that he did. Like if you knew he went to see such-and-such show, and asked him how it was, up would come the fake cigarette. And he’d pause and say dramatically, ‘Well, obviously they needed another week of rehearsal,’ or something like that. He would even go so far as to remove flecks of fake tobacco from the tip of his tongue, and then he’d extinguish the fake cigarette. He’d do this as we were having coffee and I’d think, ‘What must the other people around us in this cafe think?'”

Chicago theater has contributed a galaxy of stars, but its strength remains in those who know how to build theatrical families and homes that last decades. Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, a current ensemble member of Teatro Vista, didn’t ever get to meet or work with Mellado, whose declining health had kept him offstage in recent years. (He had been on emeritus status with the company.) But she says, “I think when you have a multigenerational ensemble, one of the things that happens is that some of the folks that joined the ensemble later absorb the history of the company through the folks that were there from the beginning.

“I started collecting memories and stories about Gustavo to post on Facebook, and I would say the thing that stood out with me the most was that the word ‘joy’ and the word ‘laughter’ was present in every single story. He seemed to be someone that brought a lot of joy to people’s lives, besides being a wonderful actor. And everyone said he had a beautiful singing voice. Mostly, I was just so impressed that everyone seemed to equate his presence with laughter and joy.”

Says Marquez, “You know, there are so many big names and famous people with all kinds of national recognition out of Chicago. We know those and the nation knows. And then there are the people like Gustavo and so many others who are actually the fabric of what makes Chicago theater and ultimately part of the fabric of theater in the nation. We’re so used to looking at it in such a celebrity-crazed culture, I don’t think we fully appreciate the Gustavos of the world—very talented, lovely people who are so happy to be working where they are. There is something very beautiful about that.”

A celebration of Mellado’s life will be held 6 PM this Sunday at the Baran Funeral Home in Whiting, Indiana

Silk Road Rising is moving on

Founded 20 years ago by creative and life partners Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani as Silk Road Theatre Project, Silk Road Rising has spent most of those years in residence at downtown’s Chicago Temple, first presenting readings and one full production in an upstairs space, and then building out a basement theater in Pierce Hall, where they presented works reflecting pan-Asian, North African, and Muslim experiences while advocating for better representation of those stories and more opportunities for artists with roots in the diverse Silk Road diaspora across the nation.

Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani of Silk Road Rising Credit: Courtesy Silk Road Rising Credit: Courtesy Silk Road Rising

Their name comes from the moniker for the ancient trade route that ran from the Far East to the Mediterranean. Khoury is a Chicago native of Syrian Orthodox and Polish and Slovak descent, while Gillani is a Pakistani Ismaili Muslim immigrant. They changed the company’s name over a decade ago to reflect their expansion into digital work; as Reader columnist Deanna Isaacs noted in September 2020, “During a 2011 interview, Khoury had told me that they were intrigued by the dissemination opportunities of the Internet and were aiming to produce video plays that would expand their reach to an international audience.”

Now Silk Road is giving up their downtown space. But their mission remains expansive. 

I caught up with Khoury and Gillani earlier this week to discuss their next steps. Gillani, who suffered the double whammy of a heart attack and stroke in September 2019, is interested in creating work “for people with aphasia in the arts.” He and Khoury have formed a partnership with the J.T. and Margaret Talkington College of Visual and Performing Arts at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. TVCPA has also been working with the university’s STAR (Stroke & Aphasia Recovery) program through the Health Sciences Center. Silk Road is building an aphasia arts forum with the university.

Gillani’s stroke affected the left side of his brain, which is where the language centers are located. He’s still working to regain speech fluency, but he’s determined to be onstage himself in 2026, performing his own story: The Art of Aphasia. “We want to give hope to people who’ve had strokes and traumatic brain injuries,” he says. When we talk about the variety of work that found its way onstage at Silk Road (which formed specifically as “an intentional and creative response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001”), Gillani points out that music from several cultural traditions formed a big part of that work.

The decision to move away from Pierce Hall isn’t abrupt or unexpected, as Khoury notes. The company had originally planned to give up the space at the end of 2021, and then asked for an extension from First United Methodist Church (which is the congregation housed at Chicago Temple) for another year. But with COVID still very present, they reevaluated that extension and realized that it didn’t make financial sense to stay in that space. (Khoury explains that, while they hadn’t been on a lease or paying rent as a resident company, they did make a monthly gift to the church.)

Khoury also notes that they’ll continue working with the church on Silk Road’s Polycultural Institute. But the work of that emerging institute, as well as the company’s continued and growing interest in multimedia production, means that focusing on finding a venue that can facilitate that kind of production has become more of a priority. 

“We want to have a soundstage that will really allow us to accelerate our output and elevate the quality of the work. We’re very proud of the digital work that we’ve done since 2010 and that we’ve continued doing. But we want something that’s more—I don’t know if the word is ‘stable,’ but just kind of more established. We’re not walking away from live theater and we’re having conversations with different universities about potential collaborations.” That could mean producing shows and forums in different neighborhoods in the city.

Reflecting on their time at Pierce Hall, Khoury says, “We were able to build community and I think tell some really great stories and build these wonderful relationships with playwrights and artists and audiences. It will always be a major part of the Silk Road story, but that story is gonna be a long story.”