Credit: Joel Maisonet

According to the Pew Research Center, Gen Z—young people currently aged 14-22—are even more liberal and politically engaged than their predecessors, the millennials. With Free Street Theater’s Parched (Stories About Water, Pollution & Theft), Chicago gets a sip of this generation’s activism and a grassrootsy dramatization of water politics.

Devised over the course of ten months by Free Street’s youth ensemble, students aged 14-19, Parched is driven by vignettes drawn from interviews with researchers, activists, and community members. In that respect, it’s a combo of journalism and performance, resulting in passionate storytelling that feels informed and brave. Too young to vote and with little opportunity to steer major legislation that will impact the rest of their lives, the young actors all seem to understand that art is their best currency. The pieces are formed by facts, but they are bound by the emotional realities of being teenagers out to stop the end of the world.

But the show never forgets the importance of play. While nerves occasionally get the best of individual performers, collectively the ensemble is confident and thirsty for both joy and justice (there’s one particular “thirst trap” joke that lands beautifully). Under the direction of Katrina Dion, the students also show a grasp of theatrical form, employing narrative, movement, and text throughout.

Ultimately, the play’s ambiguous forms, unhemmed edges, and calls to action seem directly inspired by El Teatro Campesino, the Chicano activist-artist theater company forged by Luis Valdez in the late 60s. Consider Parched a moment of activation—not just of a set, but of a new political generation.   v