The Uvalde school massacre put a somber hue on my mood going into 57 Blocks, Free Street Theater’s latest ensemble-created piece that takes a sharp look at public education. But by the end of the evening, which starts out at Free Street’s Pulaski Park home in Wicker Park, takes audiences on a bus down Ashland Avenue for—wait for it—57 blocks, and then ends up at the company’s Back of the Yards Storyfront space, I felt almost hopeful.
That’s no small feat, given the persistent problems laid out for us in the first half of the show. Using ten performer-writers under the co-direction of Katrina Dion, Marilyn Carteno, and Sebastian Olayo, and created over a two-year process with more than 30 participants (much of the development happening online, given the reality of the pandemic), 57 Blocks asks us to consider a lot of heavy history in the evolution of the schools-to-prison pipeline. (The students drew upon Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard and Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ‘Til We Free Us as part of their research.)
Through 6/18: Thu 6/2, Wed-Thu 6/8-6/9, Mon 6/13, and Thu-Fri 6/16-6/17, 7:30 PM; also Sat 6/18, 2 PM (free child co-programming for kids 13 and younger); performances begin at Pulaski Park, 1419 W. Blackhawk, and conclude at the Storyfront, 4346 S. Ashland; bus transit provided between locations; 773-772-7248, 57blocks.eventbrite.com, free, but reservations limited; 14+.
At Pulaski Park, we’re invited into the Free Street space (set up to look like a school gymnasium in Eleanor Kahn’s design), given name tags, and paired up with ensemble members who take us into various parts of the theater to highlight aspects of how public education too often focuses on policing students, rather than fostering their creativity and imagination. Luz Chavez took me to a quiet corner to talk about the history of school uniforms (championed by the Clinton administration) as a means of control disguised as a form of erasing class distinctions. Instead, as Chavez’s personal stories make clear, uniforms tend to mean that Black and Brown students are punished more often for any deviation from the required outfit. She showed me a sketchbook with her designs and those of her friends for what their ideal uniform would look like, from classic chic to whimsical. It’s a pointed rejoinder to Clinton’s admonishment that “our young people will learn to evaluate themselves by what they are on the inside instead of what they’re wearing on the outside.” What’s wrong with the outside reflecting their inner selves?
In another room, we’re encouraged to pick up phone receivers and play tapes with statistics and stories about the ways that school “resource officers” also reify racist assumptions in policing students, rather than serving as, you know, resources. Frankie Kerin demonstrated the problems with the mayor-appointed school board by using a papier-mâché volcano; the “eruption” when the vinegar hit the baking soda illustrates the overwhelming power of Mayor Lightfoot and her predecessors in controlling the decisions that affect students like Kerin and his peers.
The overarching theme is that we need to absorb these lessons as a way of coming up with new ideas and opening “the portal” to new ways of thinking about education and criminal justice. If that sounds heavy-handed, be assured that there is a strong element of play here as well, which comes into focus on the bus ride to the Storyfront. Members of the ensemble sing, point out neighborhood highlights (including Swap-O-Rama), and engage us in thoughtful conversation about our own experiences with education, favorite parts of our neighborhoods, and what ideas we might have for creating healthier communities.
The Storyfront space is where it all comes together. The small room is lit up with white paper lanterns that change color as the ensemble does indeed provide a “portal” through which to see a healthier and more just future. 57 Blocks gives us a personal point of entry to understanding why what we’re doing now in schools too often only serves to further alienate students from the process of becoming empathetic and imaginative lifelong learners at best, and criminalizes them at worst. But it also gives us some concrete ways to reach out in our own communities, and lets us know that it’s never too late to learn how to be a better member of the great ensemble that makes up our neighborhoods and our city.