May 27, 2022
photo by Joel Maisonet, pictured Brooks Lansana
Free Street Theatre’s new immersive devised theatre work 57 Blocks is a triumph of political activism, and as an immersive history lesson it is outstanding. As a work of art, it could use a bit of editing and enhanced sound design. Conceptually it is innovative– no small ideas here! The experience begins in Free Street's space at Pulaski Park where the small group who has offered themselves to this curated experience meets with the youth performers who break the “audience” into small duos and trios to move through what appear to be lessons: a volcano that is a metaphor for CPS students and the mayoral appointed School Board, an anatomy lesson about starvation which includes descriptions of when parents went on hunger strike to improve or save schools. Finally my group is ushered into a secret space: a shrine to the shuttered schools of Chicago, one of which was attended by our “tour guide”. We are taught to make paper flowers and put up a light by one of the images of the shuttered schools. Then we are brought back together and led downstairs to an awaiting school bus where we travel 57 blocks down Ashland Avenue, watching the Northside turn to the Southside and seeing significant locations in Chicago’s activist history.
The bus has a Cash Cab decorated vibe, with lights along the roof and glittery rainbow seat covers. The young ensemble attempts to engage the audience with pointed questions about their own history. And there are some gorgeous dance unison dance segments as the cast moves in their own seats.
At last we arrive at Free Street’s southern location, the Storyfront at 4634 S. Ashland, which has a kind of yoga/meditation room vibe with an art laden facade where we are exhorted to close our eyes and imagine a future where youth have a voice in their education. We are directed to write our commitments to this future on slips of paper which the youth collect.
The convention of the evening is that we are somehow opening a portal and entering this new world by traveling on this school bus, and that’s a theatrical idea I would so like to buy into. This iteration of the work however has an inherent forced quality to a lot of the interactedness in the experience, and the loudness of school bus travel somewhat obliterated verbal content muddying the ideas. Perhaps more judicious microphone use could assist in comprehension, but I also think if you are going to ask the audience questions you should really listen to the answers. My companion for the evening happens to work at CPS in restorative justice and actually knows some of the activist heroes referred to in the piece, and a real conversation that was not so performative could have informed all of us.
If you aren’t aware of the sea changes rocking the Chicago Public School system, this is an important look at some of where it's been and where these articulate and talented youth dream it could go. This is a worthy evening for all audiences to experience and meditate upon. The concepts here, the story, is one that deserves to be told. My only hope is that this ensemble continues to refine the delivery so that the story can move our hearts as well as our minds as we roll down Ashland Avenue.
If you want to see this show 2 years in the making, hurry! You can experience 57 blocks June 1,2,8,9,13,16, and 17 at 7:30 and a matinee on Saturday June 18 beginning at PUlaski Park, 1419 W Blackhawk Street in Chicago. For tickets go to http://57blocks.eventbrite.com. For more information go to https://freestreet.org