In Chicago’s not so distant past, one would travel outside of the city and be asked questions about Michael Jordan, Oprah, deep dish pizza, or Garrett’s popcorn. In more recent times, Chicago has become known more for a corrupt political system, police misconduct, and violence, all combining to earn the city a nickname of “Chiraq.” In the midst of such chaos, how do young children dream? Chicago Children’s Theatre tackles this subject head-on in the new play, Jabari Dreams of Freedom.
Nambi E. Kelley’s Jabari Dreams of Freedom tells the story of a young Black boy from the South Side of Chicago who escapes the turbulent world around him through his colorful paintings, where he interacts with children from the past. Jabari’s dreams empower him to live courageously in the face of fear. The idea of Jabari Dreams of Freedom developed organically as Kelley searched for a way to talk to her 10-year-old niece about the news, and reassure her that amid all that was happening, she was safe.
Chicago Children’s Theatre artistic director, Jacqueline Russell, who has a history of bringing diverse and socially relevant theater to the children of Chicago, understood the necessity of this play considering Chicago’s current social climate. “Children’s theater is so important because it can do something that really no other art form can do quite like theater, which is to empower children. We would not be Chicago’s Children’s Theatre if we were not speaking to the children today and addressing the world we’re living in. Young people need this play right now. They need to learn that despite whatever is going on in the world around them that every child has the power to find courage, to recognize their potential and to share their own gifts,” says Russell.
Jabari Dreams of Freedom is not only organic in conception, it has taken a grassroots approach to connect with the Chicago community. The cover art for the play is based on the “Look Up” mural by Tyrue “Slang” Jones, a Chicago artist who gave Chicago Children’s Theatre permission to use his work as the backdrop for Jabari Dreams of Freedom. Lupe Fiasco, an avid art collector himself, has partnered The Lupe Fiasco Foundation with Chicago Children’s Theatre to host an art competition with select Chicago schools. The winning school’s art will be featured as part of the backdrop for the play.
This writer had an opportunity to go behind the scenes to the first reading of Jabari Dreams of Freedom and it is evident that a lot of love, passion, and hard work have gone into this production. The fact that the cast and crew have just over three weeks from first reading to opening night speaks to the level of dedication and commitment necessary to make a production of this magnitude great. To that end, no family should miss Kelley’s love letter to the children of Chicago.
Chicago Children’s Theatre’s Jabari Dreams of Freedom is showing April 5 through May 1 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts (1016 N. Dearborn St.) in Chicago. Run time is 75 minutes. Visit: chicagochildrenstheatre.org.