Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

1619: The Journey of a People
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
By Christine Malcom

Also Christine's review of Three Sisters and Karen's reviews of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Kite Runner

Shannon Stiles, Ozivell Eckford, Marchello Lee,
and Nicole Ross

Photo by Basil Clunie
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, in partnership with Evanston Public Library and Northwestern University, is opening its 2024 season with the original musical, 1619: The Journey of a People. Written by Ted Williams III and co-directed by Tim Rhoze and Williams, the show combines music, dance, and spoken word, moving between the past and present of African Americans. The undertaking, although a bit uneven in some ways, is successful on the whole in being both celebratory and thought-provoking.

The program indicates that that show is envisioned as the titular journey as expressed through three modern characters: Dexter (played by Williams), a child of the mid-twentieth century, sees his own success as the fulfillment of Booker T. Washington's vision; Nathaniel (played by choreographer Marchello Lee), a self-described millennial, aligns himself with W. E. B. Du Bois and argues for reparations; and Katrina (played by Shannon Stiles) has a less-defined political outlook (arguably one of the ways in which the show has room for more success), instead taking on the anger, iron will, and exhaustion of Black women throughout the history the show traces.

The three modern characters are supported by other dancers, singers and musicians. Thanks to the performances, most of the individual pieces work very well to inspire, educate, and connect the journey to the Chicago area, both historically and in terms of calling out contemporary issues like segregation and mass incarceration that are persistent and insidious. However, the intention for the show as a whole to be knit together through these three lenses is not made entirely (or perhaps not sufficiently) clear on stage. Furthermore, the two earliest scenes, which rely heavily on sound and movement, in some sense prime the audience to anticipate a number of more or less discrete pieces that might proceed through time in linear fashion.

That impression is somewhat bolstered by the scenic design, which features eight newspaper excerpts hanging from the ceiling, beginning with an advertisement for the sale of a "Negro" girl at house left and proceeding through a headline from the night of President Obama's first victory. The first Katrina piece makes explicit reference to moving from the first part of the story to emancipation, but though the spoken word elements sketch out historical moments, there isn't a clear linear arc. There needn't be, of course, but greater clarity about the relationship among the pieces would likely make each land even more successfully than they do.

The set is otherwise powerful and effective. Blue is the bedrock of the mural art's color scheme (Sholo Beverly is credited as the scenic muralist). The curving walls behind the cast suggest ocean waves, graffiti art, and traditional African art. Red and white accents, as well as art pieces centered around the laments of the American flag (with a muted Confederate flag incorporated into it) on the upstage wall where the actors enter, together with the blue, tell a unifying visual story.

The show's greatest successes are in the pieces that emphasize music and movement. Lee's choreography is beautiful and moving, and all of the performers execute it with passion that transmits to the audience. Ozivell Eckford's work on both the djembe and drum kit is outstanding, as is his work as an actor. Vanessa Love's soprano is exquisite, and she is just as talented as a dancer.

1619: The Journey of a People runs through June 30, 2024, at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 847-866-5914.