Echo Theater touts acceptance

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By Nona Tepper

Kamau "Maui" Jones grew up under the mantra, "Are you a man or a mouse?" his father urging him to suppress his emotions. So when he first watched Free To Be … You And Me, he marveled at the progressive message of the 1970s children's show. Free To Be refuted gender stereotypes. Memorably for Jones, it featured a football player singing "It's All Right To Cry." 

"Seeing that positive expression of emotion really touched me," Jones said.

Some 45 years later, he hasn't forgotten those themes — and he's now slated to sing "It's All Right To Cry" onstage. The founder and artistic director of Echo Theater Collective will stage a live performance of the 1970s feel-good TV series from Nov. 30 to Dec. 9 at Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church, 405 S. Euclid Ave. in Oak Park. The six performances will be presented in collaboration with The Actors Garden and School of Rock Oak Park. 

"We're revisiting this to celebrate not only how far we've come, but also how far we have to go," Jones said. "Even as we're celebrating love and acceptance, we're saying we have to fight to give our children the tools to be better than we are. 

"We had America To Me; the entire country saw how we're failing our children. I went to OPRF [High School] 20 years ago and watching that show breaks me down into tears because it's like, 'Oh nothing has changed.'... That's partially on me. Even as I am a survivor of that, I am also complicit in it, and so I want to be part of the solution."  

The Free to Be cast comprises approximately 21 actors, age 8 to elderly. Jones, of Forest Park, has dropped off curated lesson plans related to the production — which the E-Team, a grassroots equity organization, helped develop — at the Oak Park and Forest Park public libraries, where he hopes young adults can reflect on the importance of empathy.

Over the past month, Cynthia Martz, outreach coordinator at Echo Theater, has also been visiting classrooms at Irving Elementary School in Oak Park to teach socio-emotional lessons related to Free To Be. She is also working with the D97 Diversity Council (DivCo) to create a district-wide outreach team, where trained parents go into students' classrooms and teach mini-lessons related to the production.  

"It's rooted in feminism, it's rooted in self-love, and the idea that you and me and everyone, we're very different, but there's something unique and special about us," Martz said.  

Gigi Hudson, artistic director of The Actors Garden, said the show is particularly relevant now, as society is questioning individuals' ability to interpret their own gender. 

Tickets for "Free to Be" are $10 for children and $12 for adults. Visit echotheatercollective.org for more information. 

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