Whitney Houston once famously sang in her Grammy-winning hit, “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they poses inside.” Those lyrics kept resonating in my head as I was leaving the ambitions, world-premiere new play with music, Jabari Dreams of Freedom. Aspiringly scribed by Nambi E. Kelley, Jabari tells the very real world tale of a Chicago south side youth living with daily anxiety resulting from witnessing senseless and continued neighborhood violence. A brisk running time of 50 minutes makes this Chicago Children’s Theatre production accessible to the very people, a student population, it hopes to influence and aid the most. Ripped from the headlines but resiliently hopeful, director Lili-Anne Brown’s troupe steps up to play in this loosely staged production. Appreciative in honoring many importance figures in black history, but thankfully not hit over the head with just rudimentary educational value, I found Jabari both inspiring and enlightening.
The story centered around Jabari (Cameron A. Goode and Philip Cusic alternating the role) a young boy traumatized by the increasing levels of violence in his Chicago south side neighborhood. After a classmate is hurt, Jabari retreats into a dream/fantasy world full of the silly; a storm trooper T-Rex drew many giggles from the audience, as well as essential leaders of the civil rights era. A burgeoning gifted artist, Jabari’s colorful paintings are the starting point for his many imagined quests. Think Mary Poppins’ park chalk drawings, but in the hood. Through these encounters, he meets “precious jewel” Ruby Bridges (Leslie Ann Sheppard) the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in Louisiana and Claudette Colvin, age 15, the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama. Colvin was placed under arrest a full 9 months before Rosa Parks. His final encounter was with a 7 year old Barack Obama (Gavin Lawrence) long before he was elected President of the United States. As the boys speak, a pint sized future Pres says “Yes we can!……..I like it.” The final sequence was a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. told through inspired quotes and impressive projections crafted by Michael Stanfill. Electing to not “ let fear turn me around,” Jabari triumphantly decides to not surrender to the evil and temptation around him. Change can happen, starting with him.
Told through the eyes and narrative of a child, Jabari Dreams of Freedom, may not be perfect, but it is an encouraging step in the right direction. I cannot imagine a daily existence paralyzed from the exhausting mental stress of the constant threat of gun violence, just by stepping outside my home or school. I really enjoyed the importance of the relationship between father and son at the crux of the story. Jabari’s father was desperately focused on resuscitating Jabari’s sense of hope. A valuable lesson, indeed. I also think the decision to have him encounter these important civil rights leaders as children, peers really, helped both the character and the audience embrace the intangible and empowering vital lessons behind each encounter. Those who do not understand their history are doomed to repeat it.
The remaining creative team behind Jabari Dreams of Freedom included musical director Jaret Landon, lighting design from Nick Belley, sets created by William Boles and the real world costuming of Mieka van der Ploeg. Well, as real world as a storm trooper T-Rex can be. The remaining adult ensemble included Matt Keffer, Emily Glick, Patrick Agada and Leslie Ann Sheppard who played supporting parts as varied as additional childhood classmates, distressing television news announcers, enthusiastic sign carrying protesters and hands-on community activists.
Since 2005, Chicago Children’s Theatre has become the city of Chicago’s largest theatrical company focusing on year-round quality children’s programming. Jabari Dreams of Freedom is an excellent “gem” added to the creative “crown” of their series of productions. In a short 10 years, the Chicago Children’s Theatre has served over 325,000 theatergoers locally and worked with students and schools from all 50 wards in the city of Chicago. How inspiring would it be if the very works that challenged the every day urban societal norms could impact this next generation to incite a powerful and serious change? Jabari is a concrete step in that direction.
Chicago Children’s Theatre’s Jabari Dreams of Freedom is now playing at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts through May 1, 2016