Young people are our brightest, and often most underestimated source of inspiration and problem solving. With issues of gun control, immigration, and climate change seeming to cloud the future with each passing day, they seek beyond education and are called into advocacy, frustrated and unsatisfied with the grim prospects of tomorrow. And why shouldn't they be, aren't we all?
Free Street Theater hosts one of the finest programs of youth development I've witnessed in Chicago. There's a sense of genuine care and commitment to fostering the perspectives of their youth ensemble, never undermining or diminishing, but uplifting them to grow. I will try my best to describe the atmosphere of stepping into such a sacred space, but please note its vibrantly visceral nature can only be fully experienced in person. The energy immediately shifts upon entering the lobby whether packed with people everywhere you turn like in my case (waitlist works), or with a small, but mighty assembly gathered. You can feel the community pouring in to lend its support, and wraps you up right in it like you've always belonged.
Parched: Stories about Water, Pollution & Theft, directed by FST Director of Youth Programming & Development Katrina Dion, is a multi-disciplinary voyage in examining the privilege of a human right through access to clean, free water. Created and performed by the FST Youth Ensemble (Aminata Harley, Imani Al-Uqdah, Estrella Sutton, Niguel Nehru Neal, Jr., Lesly Diaz de Leon, Joseph Radinsky, Si Yuan Ye, Jada Marshall, Cora Haworth, Justice Mosley, Mikaila Publes, Aaliyah Sargent), its perspective comes from those affected by the issue most. Akin to Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli's columbinus centering on the 1999 Columbine school shooting, the narrative being carried out by a powerful youth presence allows this work to hit closer to home than if told through a different lens.
The FST Youth Ensemble have also crafted their text a la Laramie Project style pulling from hundreds of interviews with locals. It allows for representation from sea to shining sea depicting local and international experiences from Cuba, Ethiopia, Morocco, Mexico, and of course, Flint, MI. One ensemble member sums up their shared struggle best, "We come here to be fish and be free. We're poisoned in our own homes." In dealing with such a vast subject, the performers have done their homework and extra credit, encompassing many viewpoints and references when we think of water. To see this abundance of heart, sweat, and perseverance come together in their efforts is impressive and nothing short of breathtaking.
Under Dion's guidance, the piece is structured to ensure smooth sailing starting from memories and building momentum into political and global commentary. Personal narratives pull us in, lyrical movements craft a meaty middle, before stacking the deck towards the end with data driven dialogue. The breadth of overall imagery is ambitious and can't help but leave you awestruck in its multi-media delivery. A sprinkler joust between friends, a storm of spray bottles, a projection lesson that schools specifically left out of their curriculum, a literal tug a war between Lake Michigan and Nestle, and the most informative yet hilarious use of ASMR on stage to date.
Eleanor Kahn's scenic design springs forth feelings of being mesmerized in this playground and empty pool. Its futuristic yet nostalgic presence is further energized by lighting from Cassandra Kendall. I only wish this jungle gym was utilized more upstage as much of the action takes place away from this magnificent, metal maze. It would've allowed for consistent projection and sight of actors. While the space allows more room to play with, the ensemble's ideas never filter out. Each vignette smoothly comes in and out like a calm or excited tide depending on the moment. There's the sensation of feeling as lively and jumpy as if in a wave pool as each idea washes over you.
Each beat feels location driven casting a net that wants to preserve and protect each space and its inhabitants. Perspectives pour out from the water fountains at school, the faucets of homes, to plastic bottles that can mostly be purchased anywhere. There's always a thirst for more and that general sense of desperation is encapsulated in the harrowing image of a pitcher pouring out and everyone in a frenzy fighting for one more sip. All of this builds to the final presentation of gnawing at how Chicago residents are effected by their water and government policies not protecting us as much as they should. Flint is not so far off from happening here.
Parched dances back and forth between fantasy and reality in hoping we can work toward a brighter future without ignoring the steps required to get there. It ends on a note of challenging its audiences instead of patting them on the back: "Seeing this play is not work." Theatre can offer a place for connection and education, but it's only the beginning. Impact ultimately rests on the work that occurs after leaving the space from being presented with this information. We can't expect the tides of change to occur if we're not willing to ride the wave, or create some of our own.
Much like a shower in the rain or a ride down a Slip N Slide, Parched is a limited burst of joy. This is the last weekend to attend one of their pay-what-you-can performances. It's been awhile since I've felt so energized and assured that the arts and our humanity are in good hands. In the future of Chicago theatre, I hope the Free Street Theater Youth Ensemble is leading the torch. They already are.