Aztec deities. Sistine Chapel replicas. Ancient mulberry trees. Ground Michelle Obama probably walked on. These are the elements that await within the latest adventures proffered by Chicago Children’s Theatre. Let it be said that if the CDC were to visit CCT, they’d approve of the 15-year-old company’s latest three productions. All are wholly outdoors and all will spur kids and their families to explore worlds completely inaccessible via computer screens. They are also marvelously engaging, no matter your chronological age.
“Obviously necessity is the mother of invention,” says CTC artistic director Jacqueline Russell of Walkie Talkies, three separate podcasts each meant to be heard while taking a 20-30 minute stroll through South Shore, La Villita, and Lincoln Park’s North Pond Nature Sanctuary. Each free episode comes with a map and a detailed audio play narrated by a storyteller (or tellers) taking the walk—virtually—with the participants.
“It seems like over time, people are getting less into online entertainment because kids are already spending so much school time online,” Russell adds. “So we wanted to offer something that would get them moving, and get them excited about these neighborhoods. I’d really love to have one for each neighborhood. Lift them all up.”
Artist/activist Jasmin Cardenas brought her children (Mateo, 8 and Catalina, 5) into the storytelling as the trio explores Butterflies, Aztec Gods and Puerquitos/Sweet Piggie Bread, which she narrates with her children as they make their way through La Villita while playing a vivid game of I Spy.
“For me, it was an easy pick because it’s such a beautiful, inspiring community that gets a bad rap because it gets a lot of bad publicity,” she says. Butterflies is anchored in visual cues, including monarch butterflies, which migrate to Mexico by the millions every year, and the snake-bearing eagle central to the Mexican flag.
As the walk goes down 26th Street (Cardenas recommends going on a weekend, so you can—at a social distance—experience the street vendors) past shrines, murals, and cafes, the three narrators tell the stories behind local landmarks. These include tales that date back to the Aztec Empire and through changes the area has seen and is experiencing right now. At one point, they stop at a church that was started by Eastern Europeans and is now used by the Latinx community, an architectural monument to waves of immigrant communities.
“I knew I wanted to tell the story of the Mexican flag and the symbols in it—these images people see all the time but may not know the history of, even if they know all the insignias. I want them to hear about Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Aztecs,” says Cardenas. “So I literally went to my kids and said, ‘I’m going to tell you some stories and I need you to tell me what you think.’ Because kids can have very short attention spans. And then I realized they could help me.
“We have to take an active ownership in our storytelling. That’s important. I know these are sacred stories and I’m definitely a little nervous about people who might frown on some of the sillier elements we worked in. But the kids were on board.”
The colors of water
Quenna Lené Barrett’s Stacey’s Walk is narrated by the titular 13-year-old girl (played by Jameela Muhammad) as she navigates from the lagoons of the Jackson Highlands past the Jeffery Theater and the South Shore Cultural Center to South Shore Beach. At her final stop, she recalls in immersive detail how her father taught her to find meditative comfort in the waters of Lake Michigan after the killing of Michael Brown.
“We so rarely invite young people to exercise control over their bodies in that way. It just felt like a nice way to begin and end it,” Barrett says.
While she’s walking, Stacey muses with often hilariously accurate teenage perspective on the sights and the neighborhood history she’s been taught—or not taught. Upon seeing Jesse Jackson’s old stomping grounds: “He was a Black man who ran for the presidency. Probably like a hundred years ago.” And then: “That’s pretty neat. They don’t teach us in school about all the Black people that wanted to be president before Obama.” It won’t be the last time Barrett‘s writing pivots with ruthless grace from wry humor to blunt assessment of real-life ongoing travesties.
Barrett had parallel issues in learning about the neighborhood.
“It’s a little difficult finding history of the area written by folk of color,” she says. “I think I found one piece online eventually.”
Stacey’s walk is propelled by her desire to convince her mother that she’s old enough to go to a protest. As she explains to the listener, she’s researched the activist groups. She knows who the organizers are. She wants to stand up for what’s right, as she’s been taught. Why does her mother have to be so scared about it?
“I think I started because I didn’t know where to place the feelings I had been having. I had been angry over Trayvon. I was angry over Mike Brown. I didn’t know where to put my anger, and I wanted to be with people who understood and wanted to do something about it. So I started following protests on Twitter. I’d look to see who and where people were. And at Black Youth Project 100 specifically, I finally found this group of young Black women and young queer folks who were not only leading protests, but also doing educational work on how we could actually get to a different place.”
In Stacey’s Walk, she delves into history much older than Jesse Jackson. We hear about the impact of redlining and lunch counter protests, and about legendary artists with local roots such as Ramsey Lewis. (Stacey’s hot take on jazz is quite memorable.)
“I think I’m in this moment where I’m less afraid of saying out loud things I might have kept in several years ago,” Barrett says. “We have to invest in Black spaces and Black people. We have to know the history; we have to think of the future.”
To the birds
Husband-and-wife northsiders Shawn Pfautsch and Jessica Ridenour did not, strictly speaking, create a neighborhood walk. The Green Heron—or—Should I Be Scared? is instead a perambulation around Lincoln Park’s North Pond Nature Sanctuary, as directed by a mother-and-son pair of green herons.
The son heron has the bright idea to migrate to the ocean via foot instead of flight, because, he explains, flying is too hard. The mother heron agrees to let him walk, provided he can find someone to accompany him. So begins an odyssey involving surfer-dude squirrels, mama muskrats worthy of Beatrix Potter, and the occasional moment of predatory realism as junior begins his great walkabout. Pfautsch and Ridenour play the entire menagerie.
Through it all, Pfautsch wanted to emphasize the little heron’s recurring question about fear as he and his mother encounter myriad creatures great and small.
“We want to honor children’s feelings. I think kids are very sensitive, in a good way, about death and fear and being scared. I think when you’re working on a story, it should be in context of what you’re feeling in the world, what’s happening. And we see a lot of fear right now, for obvious reasons. So we started to think—how can we put the question of ‘Should I be scared?’ into context for kids?”
“There are things the mother says about different situations. Don’t be scared, be wary. Trust your instincts, but also look at the information you’re being given,” Ridenour adds.
Pfautsch has been an avid birder for decades, a choice that prompted his heron characters. The graceful birds “skulk around the pond,” and although they can be hard to spot, “there’s absolutely a chance you’ll see them on the walk,” Pfautsch says. But the point isn’t bird-watching so much as storytelling, and Should I Be Scared? finds plenty of non-avian flora and fauna to celebrate.
“The most important thing for me is for the audience to have a good time,” says Pfautsch. “I want them to connect with these plants and places, but mostly I want them to enjoy themselves. All of Shakespeare’s plays have clowns. Even the tragedies.” v