Sue Ontiveros: Community embraces its garden theater

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Devene Parker and Aida Zeleke of Green Scene Chicago’s Summer Stock Ensemble take a seat under the still-growing scenery for their upcoming play.

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The plan all along was to have the teens perform a play.

But first, the scenery had to grow.

We’re accustomed to theatrical ventures where the crew builds and paints the necessary scenery. This is the first one I can remember where the theater troupe planted and watered it.

But that’s just what’s happening as Green Scene Chicago’s Summer Stock Teen Ensemble gets ready for its free performances Aug. 11 and 12 of “Jacklyn and the Beanstalk,” a fresh approach to the childhood classic. The play talks about conquering fears while putting in a good word for beans. (In this case, purple pole beans.)

The idea of combining theater with organic gardening/nutrition is the brainchild of actress Martie Sanders, who Chicago audiences might know best from her work with “Sweat Girls.”  Theater and gardening are passions of hers, so she decided to create a project that shares them both.

All the action takes place in the Winthrop Harmony Arts Garden, which flourishes where a long-vacant three-flat in Uptown, then a trash-covered lot, once stood. From the very beginning in 2013 Sanders wanted this to be for and by the community, and that’s what it’s been. After Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) had the space cleared, Sanders went door-to-door — with a flier printed in five languages — asking for help.


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And ever since that first day — where, despite a downpour, a crowd of neighbors helped put down wood chips and build the first plant boxes — the community has come together to nurture the spot. Four community groups and seven families garden there along with the teens. Kale, radishes, grapes, lavender, sage, beautiful yellow coneflowers and much more fill the space.

The teens in the ensemble have been meeting each Saturday since May. They write, improvise and under Sanders’ guidance, tweak “Jacklyn” while practicing their lines. And, of course, garden.

This is Devene Parker’s second summer working (no free labor here; the teens are paid minimum wage) with Sanders. She’s playing Jacklyn, and admits to being “excited and nervous at the same time” about the upcoming performances. She’s learned a lot about fresh food during these two summers, and has taken the bold step of adding Asian greens to omelets.

The idea of cooking the greens surprises the ensemble’s Aida Zeleke. She hadn’t thought of doing that, instead used those same greens in salads. But maybe next time …

This is exactly what Sanders wants: for the students to not only learn how to get their hands dirty and plant things, but that they’ll also give new, fresh foods a chance. The idea of growing your own food is big these days, and it’ll be great if the younger generation can embrace it and make it their own, according to Sanders.

But those lofty thoughts have to be put on the shelf for the moment: there’s a play that needs perfecting. So Zeleke, a first-year cello player, is “practicing quite a lot.” (Her cello stands in for the original story’s golden harp.)

They’ll be doing seven performances, more than in years past because word has gotten around and last summer there were lines of kids waiting. This is a hot theatrical ticket. (Group reservations at:

And one last reminder: the performances are BYOT, Bring Your Own Towel, so you can sit and take in the play and the growth — of all sorts — that fills this lovely Uptown space.


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