An Evening of Theater at the Juvenile Detention Center

2018-06-18 – Friday evening, Kit and I dropped by the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center at Hamilton and Roosevelt Road to catch a preview performance by the Temporary LockDown Ensemble of the original musical “The Unstoppable Force.” It was an eye-opening experience.

The invite came from my current writing teacher Cheri Coons. She works for a group called Storycatchers Theater, which was founded by our former writing teacher Meade Palidofsky. I’ll tell you more about our connection to these two women at the end of this post. First I want to tell you about these remarkable kids. Here’s the program blurb describing the show:

On his birthday, Malik wakes up from a fantasy where all his dreams of fame and success come true, to a reality where his sister T-Kay and little brother JJ are lured into the scheme of a powerful criminal. Can Malik, with the help of a mysterious woman named Hope, resolve his family issues and lead his siblings to a better path?

The kids built this show out of memories each of them wrote about from their life experiences, then they formed an ensemble to perform the show—with singing and dancing.

These kids are locked up because they have been arrested and are awaiting trial (and presumably unable to make bail). We had no idea what they have been charged with. It could be pretty heinous or they could have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the meantime, their lives are pretty disrupted and could change from day to day.

Members of the cast can be called to court dates or meetings with lawyers or face a variety of other uncertainties relating to their cases. Cast members can disappear and have to be replaced on a moment’s notice. And this is not just a foreboding threat. It happens. One of the leads in the performance we saw had to be replaced just the day before. And yet another cast member filled in with little effort.

It was a great show.

In recent years, I had a couple of opportunities to see shows at the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts). The Temporary LockDown kids are the same age as the ChiArts kids. The talent and energy and enthusiasm of the Temporary LockDown kids would fit right in at ChiArts. The difference between the two groups may come from an accident of birth or from the degree of family support. Or it only may be that the Temporary LockDown kid got caught and the ChiArts kid hasn’t been caught yet.

We didn’t see where the kids are housed, but the school facility was pleasant, except for all the security checkpoints. (Regular schools may even have comparable security due to fear of shooters.) Security creeps me out. The guards were pleasant to us as we went through metal detectors and submitted to searches, more pleasant than the TSA at airports, but I suppose they are quite able to come down on any kid who violates rules. Even though I am not in custody, in places like this, I am not free to leave without escort.

The halls where we walked were plastered with signs welcoming Cong. John Lewis, who recently visited the kids and they had a chance to perform for him. At the end of the show, the kids talked to us about what his visit meant to them. I had a little trouble hearing this part (due to the acoustics and my need to make an appointment for a hearing aid), but one name did come through when the lead character Malik spoke: Martin Luther King.

As I listened (imperfectly) my mind wandered to the thought that this kid’s name, Malik, means king.

* * *

Kit and I met Storycatchers artistic director Meade Palidofsky around 30 years ago when we both independently signed up for a class Meade was giving at the time at Chicago Dramatists Workshop. Kit and I didn’t know each other at the time. Although Kit did catch my eye during the class, I did not ask her out. The class ended and that was it.

But the class was wonderful, so when Meade offered the class again a year later, both Kit and I independently signed up. This time, I did finally get Kit’s number and, eventually called her (it took several months). Eventually, we were married. And it all is Meade’s fault for having such a great class.

Many years later, as our boys were going to college and we were anticipating begin empty nesters, Kit decided to give me a gift of another writing class so that I could adapt my not-yet-finished novel for musical theater. The first guy she connected me with had just decided to pull up stakes and move to LA, but he gave me the name of Cheri Coons who teaches musical theater—back at Chicago Dramatist Workshop. And it turned out that Cheri also works with Meade at Storycatchers. I’ve been working on my script in Cheri’s classes ever since. And that’s how I learned about Friday’s show. Cheri was the director.

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