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Review: Kids Play a Role in Making Justice Happen in Jabari Dreams of Freedom

The interactive play takes children on a ride through civil rights history at the New Victory Theater.

Rantea Thompson, Colette Ambo, Verdale Stinson Jr., Marcus A. Siler, and Kevin Allen in Jabari Dreams of Freedom at the New Victory Theater.
(© Alexis Buatti Ramos)

When we think of America's civil rights movement, we often think of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and other adults who took stands against unfair treatment of people of color. But we sometimes forget to acknowledge the role that young people played. That's an issue that Jabari Dreams of Freedom, now running in a First Woman production at the New Victory Theater, addresses in a 50-minute play with music, dance, and some important lessons. The show is geared toward kids 7 and up, but adults will find much to value in it too.

For Jabari (Verdale Stinson Jr.), a Black fifth-grader from Chicago's South Side, the world can be a scary place, especially after his friend Emmett (Joshua Perry) is hurt when a police officer wrongfully detains him. His parents (Colette Ambo and Marcus A. Siler) understand, but that doesn't mean he can avoid going to school. One night Jabari has a dream that takes him through the 1950s and '60s where he meets other young people who were afraid when they felt themselves being treated unfairly, but they took a stand for what they knew was right. Jabari also travels to Indonesia and meets the young version of his hero, Barack Obama (Siler), and teaches the future president what he has learned. When Jabari awakes, he knows he has to send a message to the world even if he's a little afraid while doing it.

That's a powerful message for children (and adults) to hear. Playwright Nambi E. Kelley and director Daniel Carlton don't try to frighten kids in the audience with violent imagery of protests, but they don't dumb down the material, either. Jabari learns about 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman (months before Rosa Parks refused to give up hers); the 1963 Children's Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, in which 1,000 children marched against segregation and in some cases were arrested; and Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to desegregate an all-white school in New Orleans.

Using music (Stinson's singing raises the roof), dance (lively choreography by Cedric Greene), eye-catching projections designed by Yu Leo Lei, a few protest signs in the hands of some kids in the audience, and lots of laughs, the show does a terrific job of getting young voices to join in (Rantea Thompson and Kevin Allen complete the ensemble). Call-and-response numbers, together with Jessica Wardell's colorful set, David Lander's lively lighting, and Yu'seph Cornish's modern-day and 1960s-style costumes, get the audience feeling like a community with a common goal of fairness and justice. The message is one of inclusivity, since the struggle for freedom is something all Americans, regardless of age or skin color, are called to participate in. We could all use a little reminder of that now.

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