Hey everyone! It’s good to be back and writing after a long hiatus. Junior year in high school has really been a lot of work, but truly, one for the books. Not only am I trying to juggle the normal demands of my junior year academic schedule, but also continuing to pursue my passion for several performing arts.
One of the recent projects I’ve had the privilege of being a part of was a collaboration between the Chicago Children’s Choir and the Q-Brothers collective called Long Way Home. Loosely based around The Odyssey, Long Way Home tells the story of The Ithaca Crew (comprised of 3 teen best friends, Odysseus, Kamika, and Taj) and the journey they take from the South Side to the Far North Side of Chicago for a Rap Contest.
Instead of taking a normal train up from Ithaca, the characters’ fictional neighborhood, up to Jarvis, Odysseus, Kamika, and Taj find themselves on the Deep Dish Express – a train line named after one of Chicago’s notable symbols – the Deep Dish Pizza. Deep Dish, a homeless man the Ithaca Crew originally makes fun of, takes them on a journey through all the neighborhoods of Chicago, teaching them that the integration of people from all walks of life— like the colors of the Chicago Transportation Authority (CTA) – is what truly makes Chicago great.
This wasn’t the first musical production I had been a part of, but it certainly is the one I hold closest to my heart. The experience brought together three things I am passionate about in a single theatrical production: music, social justice, and Chicago. It also enabled me to make some fantastic friendships with other members of the Voice of Chicago (the part of Chicago Children’s Choir I sing with) and the Q-Brothers collective.
Beyond the friendships, Long Way Home was, as one member of the Q-Brothers put it, a love letter to the City of Chicago. Instead of focusing on the violence and segregation that have hurt the city’s reputation, Long Way Home celebrated the diversity and the rich musical history that this city has given the world.
Despite having lived in Chicago all my life, I had never truly understood the significance of saying you’re from a certain neighborhood, that the neighborhood implies that you subscribe to a certain belief system, and that the CTA line you take defines who you are. One of the introductory lyrics in Deep Dish Express is a sneaky reference to our city’s segregation: “Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, you’ll find/That’s a nice way of saying people like to stick to their own kind.” And while that’s mostly true, I’ve found, through the Chicago Children’s Choir, that when given the opportunity, people from different neighborhoods have no problem coming together to celebrate, to protest, or to otherwise civically engage in Chicago.
One of Odysseus’ lines in the song Oxygen talks about how she’s never left Ithaca and she’s always wondered what other neighborhoods are like, but she thinks she understands each of them now.
Going outside Ithaca—outside our bubble- may feel uncomfortable, but can be done if one takes the first step. If we make the effort to listen and participate in the lives of other people, like Odysseus, Kamika, and Taj did, we can overcome the barriers that separate us. In other words, to make some progress we must become more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Another lesson: be wary of subtle symbols and boundaries that become rigid and separate us from others. Minor things we do in our day to day lives end up having a big impact on our towns and cities, like the train we take, the neighborhood we are part of, and the school we attend.
Theater and art, as in Long Way Home, are powerful and thought-provoking tools to shift people’s mindsets without lecturing or forcing a point of view.. Instead of getting on a soap-box (like this blog?) and telling people that segregation is still a prevalent problem in Chicago, it’s much more powerful to hear Deep Dish say “Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, you’ll find/That’s a nice way of saying people like to stick to their own kind”.
Someone once said that they wished they loved something as much as people from Chicago love Chicago. Honestly, I never truly understood what that meant until I was a part of this musical, to truly love Chicago, to sing and dance about Chicago, to honor Chicago— and to do all that for Chicagoans— was a life changing, eye opening experience.