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‘MLK Project’ a powerful history lesson for children, adults of all races

BY CATEY SULLIVAN

For the Sun-Times

Back in the 1990s when playwright/poet/educator Yolanda Androzzo was teaching elementary school social studies to African-American children on Chicago’s scarred and struggling West Side, she had a shocking reality check.

“Many of these young people had no idea that slavery had ever happened,” the DePaul graduate and L.A.-based artist recalls. “No idea.”

The author of “The MLK Project: The Fight for Civil Rights,” which opened with a performance Monday at the Chicago History Museum continues: “A lot of African-American History — U.S. history, everybody’s history — doesn’t show up in a lot of history books.”

‘THE MLK PROJECT: THE FIGHT FOR CIVIL RIGHTS’

When: Jan. 24 – Feb. 6

Where: Chicago Children’s Theatre, Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $15-$38

Info: Visit chicagochildrenstheatre.org

Run time: 60 minutes, plus post-show discussion

Presented annually every February since 2005 to upward of 8,000 students in more than 40 schools from the North Shore to the South Side, “The MLK Project” aims at rectifying that glaring omission while simultaneously instilling students with a sense of pride and empowerment.

This year’s joint production between the Chicago Children’s Theatre and Glencoe’s Writers Theatre follows the journey of Alaya, an angry, combative teen who has seen more than her fair share of violence and loss. She’s not only ignorant of the rich, complex history of the Civil Rights Movement, she views it as irrelevant, ancient history, and studying it a complete waste of time.

Gearing up to play Alaya for the third consecutive year, actor Caren Blackmore leads students through a narrative that pulls them in with an infectious, party-vibe, hip-hop chant and takes them through a series of oral histories detailing the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr., the courage of the Freedom Riders and Rosa Parks, and the lynching of 14-year-old Chicago student Emmett Till. The stories unfold through first-person narratives culled verbatim from Androzzo’s interviews with Chicago-rooted activists, including the DuSable Museum’s Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs; the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Puerto Rican poet and activist David Hernandez, flower-child protester-turned-art teacher Jenn Weinshenker, and 96-year-old Rev. M. Earle Sardon, who marched with King and went to jail 60 times in service of the Movement.

“Since it’s a one-woman show, I’m really in tune with how the students respond,” says Blackmore, “There’s one part that — every year I can see their faces change, start to register the impact. It always happens when we get to the section about Emmett.”

As “The MLK Project” details, through an interview with the Rev. Jackson, Till was a spirited 14-year-old in 1955 when he travelled from his Chicago home to Mississippi to visit relatives. He came home in a box, recognizable only by a family ring he wore. He’d been tortured and murdered for smiling at — or perhaps greeting — a white woman. Till’s mother Mamie insisted on an open-casket funeral for her son. The image, which ran on the cover of Jet magazine, galvanized the country and made Till a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement.

“The show starts out as this fun rap,” Blackmore says. “The kids will be smiling and laughing and clapping along. But when we start talking about Till, they change. They become solemn, angry. Some of them cry. More than once a student has asked, ‘Is this really a true story? Did that actually happen?’”

Helping students deal with the anger that Till’s murder elicits is a crucial part of both the play and the talk-backs that follow every performance, says director Jimmy McDermott.

Caren Blackmore stars in "MLK Project: The Fight for Civil Rights" | Photo by Tom McGrath

Caren Blackmore stars in “MLK Project: The Fight for Civil Rights” | Photo by Tom McGrath

“At the post-show discussions, we always ask, ‘Who feels angry’?” he says, “Every hand goes up. It’s important to validate that anger — to not dismiss it or the very real violence and trauma and chaos so many of these kids deal with. It’s about acknowledging that what they’re going through is real, and that they are not alone. That other people have gone through similar things, and that you can choose to turn that anger to action to make your life different.”

For Alaya, that lesson comes hard. “My teacher always says, ‘Alaya, you have a choice,’” the character explodes, “But did I have a choice when my parents died? No! The bullets just flew by and took choice from me.”

That’s the potentially lethal predicament so many of the students who take in the ‘MLK Project’ face, says Writers’ Director of Education Nicole Ripley. They are buffeted by storms they have no control over: systemic racism, poor schools, unchecked violence, gangs, and the easy escape of easily availability illegal drugs.

“That struggle is continual,” says Androzzo, “What we hope is that they can see that the people who fought during the Civil Rights Movement faced the same things. Faced a world telling them who they were and what they could and could not do. And they decided to fight. Some picked up a pen instead of a gun. Some sang. Some marched. Many died. And it was a collective — black people, white people, Latinos, Jewish people. They all decided they would not accept what so much of the world was telling them about who they were. We want students to know they have everything they need within them to achieve their dreams.”

It’s problematic to Ripley, McDermott, Blackmore and Androzzo that the show is only performed during Black History Month. To a one, they all want to see Black History taught all year, not relegated to the weeks surrounding MLK Day.

“That’s a whole other conversation,” Androzzo says, “Maybe someday. Because while this is African-American history, it’s also American history. ”

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.