The kids stay in the picture in Free Street's Essential; Storyfront ensemble member Ally Credit: Courtesy Free Street

The long hot summer is winding down, according to the calendar, but youth theater ensembles are examining a season of protest and pandemic through three shows, created in collaborative (though remote) processes and available online. 

Free Street, Collaboraction, and TimeLine all had to reconfigure their youth programs, but all three found ways to bring the voices of Chicago’s young people (who have been rising up to protest cops in schools, among other actions) to the digital forefront.

For Free Street’s Storyfront ensemble, whose physical space is located in Back of the Yards, switching to creating their devised work online didn’t mean they weren’t still rooted in their neighborhoods. With Essential, which opens in a limited online run Friday, they examined the question of what makes someone’s work “essential,” and considered the many ways the COVID-19 shutdown has affected their communities and its workers. 

Codirector Keren Díaz de León says, “It really has changed all of our perspectives on labor. We have teens who are caregivers in their homes for siblings and for elders. We also have teens who are still actively organizing in their schools, in their high schools, even still now, during the pandemic. We also had teens who said they felt uncomfortable about confronting this idea of what labor is because they’ve been told so often that they don’t know what it means to work, and that they need to go get a real job.”

Essential is structured as a choose-your-own-adventure narrative and video game, with the ensemble providing home videos reflecting on labor issues and more. “Free Street prides itself on innovation and minimalism and getting to the root of the stories of the community that it surrounds and that it’s helping to uplift,” notes codirector Sebastian Arboleda. Prior to the shutdown, the Storyfront ensemble members had already begun gathering stories about labor from the people in Back of the Yards. (The teen ensemble also represents West Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Gage Park, and McKinley Park, where Díaz de León grew up.) 

“They were tasked with interviewing people in the neighborhood and asking them questions about their dream job. And then they would come back and have to transform into the person that they had interviewed and kind of embody the interview they had conducted from the perspective of the person they had interviewed. And that was kind of our first launching into the topic of labor. And then we started branching into the stockyards and the history of factories and industry in Back of the Yards,” says Díaz de León. When they could no longer safely do in-person interviews, the process became even more “hyperlocal,” as Arboleda and Díaz de León describe it, with the teens collecting stories in their own homes and families.

In addition to looking at themselves as essential workers within their families, the question of how “essential” art and artmakers are also came up. “It’s their own form of activism for themselves in a way,” observes Arboleda. “We have musicians, we have people who are aspiring actors.” He adds, “Because of the experiences the ensemble has with childcare and all of this stuff, it brings with it a certain grit. I think that was also what made us capable of finishing the project as well, because they were able to adapt. But it was an adaptability that was inherited. Just because that’s pretty much the lifestyle they were born into.”

Essential may not offer all the answers, but it’s providing questions that we can begin to ask ourselves,” says Díaz de León. “Why is it a privilege that we get to work from home? There are a lot of folks who have disabilities—I’m included—that would benefit from being able to work from home, or study from home. And is that taboo?”

Meantime, Collaboraction’s youth ensemble created ten separate videos that collectively make up The Light (available for viewing, along with other Collaboraction digital content, through the company’s Together Network for a low-cost monthly subscription). Chosen through a competitive submission process, the videos draw upon dance, music, spoken word, and comedy to reflect upon our current political and social landscape.

In Sandusky, Dani Mauleon offers her version of a satirical news report, a la The Daily Show. But Mauleon, an undocumented immigrant (the title reflects the ICE facility in Ohio where she spent six months in detention), brings personal fire to her acerbic observations on xenophobia and racism. Speaking of the current administration, Mauleon says, “I feel like these guys sit down to watch It and they root for Pennywise.”

Antwon Funches serves up a litany of fears of anti-Black profiling and violence in Perceptions, while also providing a healthy dose of skepticism about performative wokeness from white people. “What’s an apology if you keep your ideology?,” he asks. In Today by Christian Aguilar, a Black father stops his son from redelivering an Amazon package that was mistakenly left at their doorstep, out of fear that he will be shot for going up to a neighbor’s house. (The piece was inspired by the story of Brennan Walker, who was shot at by a white man in Michigan for asking for directions.)

Nods to past artists also show up, as in Aria Mallare’s I, Too, America, in which she updates Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too,” describing the national anthem as “that song sung through clenched teeth.”

TimeLine South normally provides hands-on theater training and ensemble building exercises through TimeLine’s Living History Education Program. But the history the youth are living through now requires immediate documentation. In Fulmination: Dear Dismal World, The Truth Awaits, their digital show (created with program director Tiffany Fulson), the troupe melds the personal and the political. Individual performances unfold through a series of vignettes. We also see a series of Zoom meetings in which the kids bond, bicker, and come to greater awareness of each other’s vulnerabilities. It feels intensely personal, as each of the participants explains how the issues of racism, colorism, immigration policy, bullying, and mental health issues (among other things) affect their daily lives. 

“Why do the people we love the most hurt us the most?” is the question that kicks off the show. But by the end, the ensemble has taken a journey through pain to the possibility of a different and better world, as embodied in the last spoken line. “I can’t turn off my feelings and feel nothing at all, numbness. But I feel to overcome.” Like their peers in Collaboraction and Free Street, the TimeLine South ensemble has harnessed the power of their own stories to create a road map to the future.  v