Moved by the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and the hate incident perpetrated against Live Café, Oak Park, on the same day, along with encouraging words from the District 97 administration, Bill McGlynn, CAST program director at Percy Julian Middle School, pivoted theater show plans to present something new and relevant to these times. CAST Tells the Story, a new production assembled by McGlynn, will be presented virtually on March 1.
In December, CAST students had begun learning songs for Once on this Island, a virtual musical. But, as events unfolded during winter break, McGlynn had fresh thoughts about the programming. Also, an email from D97 Superintendent Carol Kelley came out. It started with a quote from John Lewis, “When you see something that is not right, you must say something. you must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
“I just couldn’t stop thinking about John Lewis and that quote,” McGlynn said. “We have to recognize this moment, and in a way, the pandemic lets us stop and change plans more than we would have been able to other times.”
“When we went back into rehearsal, I felt like it would really be supported by the administration and the students if we really just stopped moving forward on Island and focus on how we can talk about what’s happening, not just nationally … but also there’s Oak Park,” he said, citing both the incident at Live Café when a brick with a racist note was thrown at the window of the Black-owned coffee shop and Dr. Kelley’s letter which mentioned how insurrectionists were not treated the same way other protesters have been treated. Jeremy Christian, Julian’s principal, also sent a message to staff supporting flexibility and responsiveness in reaction to current events.
CAST Tells the Story follows the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis, the last two people to have lain in state at the U.S. Capitol, and the only ones in 2020, and is a way to juxtapose events that recently took place at that sacred place. “We could tell that story,” McGlynn said. “Who were these people and why did they also play a part in the Capitol story.”
McGlynn said “their stories are interwoven” in the play and as the CAST members rehearsed, they talked about how Ginsberg’s and Lewis’ stories relate to them. “We focus on them as young people,” McGlynn said. “…They were already exceptional people and having experiences that informed their thinking later on.”
“We’ve been focusing a lot on youth because I want them to connect with these characters.”
The CAST season began in the fall with approximately 75 students interested in acting in whatever format would work during the pandemic. Although McGlynn said this is fewer than in-person seasons, he was “charged” by the number. He has been at Julian for 18 years.
The season, with its “Resilient” theme, has included The Diary of Anne Frank, Aftershock and Votes for Women, which honors the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. It was while working on this play that McGlynn saw especially how CAST’s sixth and eighth grade girls were in touch with who Ruth Bader Ginsburg was. “I just knew what a force she was in their lives,” McGlynn said.
All of this season’s shows have been presented virtually. For CAST Tells the Story, the students and teachers are learning from each other.
“At first, we were all confused,” McGlynn said with a laugh. “I knew what I wanted to say. I didn’t have any problems with that. But I didn’t know how we were going to say it. I was not sure how the technology was going to work. And I really feel like the kids were the opposite. We got into rehearsal with them, and they were like ‘We have this technology thing down.’ They’re not scared of how to submit videos and change formats… and they’re totally interested in pushing the limits of what we can do with Zoom. So we got a lot of confidence from them.”
“The other way, they were like, “I don’t know why we’re doing this. How is it going to work telling the story of these two different people at different times who had different lives? What does that have to do with right now?’” McGlynn continued.
He said in going through the process, the students have learned the relevance of both figures.
Of the 37 students participating, no one acts as RBG or John Lewis in CAST Tells the Story, but students read passages, and act as other supporting characters. There will also be historical items supplementing the narrative.
View “CAST Tells the Story” virtually Monday, March 1, 7:30 p.m. Free, donations requested to support CAST. Register: showtix4u.com/event-details/47523