In 2018, Ted Williams III, professor of political science at City Colleges of Chicago, decided to take a sabbatical at the right time. The Ashburn resident spent his free time thinking about how to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African Americans in America.
The first instinct, as a scholar, would be some sort of academic lecture detailing this history, starting in 1619.
“I started working on it, then I said, ‘That’s not what I want to do,'” Williams, 45, laughs.
Instead, Williams, who is an actor and loves the performing arts, decided to merge his interests to create what became “1619: A People’s Journey, The Musical.”
Thanks to several grants, production began in August 2019 at Kennedy-King College, in commemoration of the anniversary of the date when the first enslaved Africans arrived in America.
The musical returns to Chicago at the Vittum Theater, with performances the weekend of June 19 and also July 23.
Juneteenth celebrates and examines the date in 1865 when African Americans first learned of their freedom from the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued two years prior. (The holiday is June 19, although the federal holiday is observed on Monday this year.)
Pulitzer Prize-winning Nikole Hannah Jones launched her “1619 Project” at the same time, but Williams said she had no idea her project was underway when he created his musical. While he initially reached out to her about collaborating, nothing materialized, although the two will now work together on an upcoming panel at Northern Illinois University.
“The interesting part was, for me, as a person of color who worked in the college space, it was a no-brainer for me to engage around this anniversary,” Williams said.
The production was shown at colleges across the country. Williams describes it as a reflection through the ages on what it means to be a black American, through hip-hop, jazz and blues music.
During the pandemic, Williams, who also produced the show, partnered with the DuSable Museum and WBEZ radio to present the musical virtually.
He looks forward to continuing to perform the musical and engage students at three Chicago public schools this fall, and a cast album will be available for purchase for the first time this Juneteenth.
“I am constantly concerned [about] the issues of violence and the issues of economic disparities and all of those issues. And so the show is really just a manifestation of that,” he says. “The doors just opened wide and we can’t wait to move on and really be in more spaces and more places to share the story.”
Although Williams was hesitant to reveal many details about the musical ahead of this weekend’s broadcast, she includes the minds of famous black figures – from Booker T. Washington to Fred Hampton to Colin Kaepernick – debating the Afro journey. -American.
It even alludes to a hip-hop debate between Booker T. Washington and WEB Du Bois through modern characters.
“We are really looking at what is the way forward? And what our current condition is now and how do we act in this country, that’s been a real dichotomy for us,” Williams notes. “On the one hand, it’s the land of opportunities. On the other hand, it is the land of oppression and suffering.
Williams says bringing this black history to public schools is critical to the future of black America, and the response he has received from students has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s so, so critical that this story isn’t just for a month or a day,” he says. “But that it is celebrated all year round.”
Additional events for the weekend of June 16
Here are some Chicago-area celebrations planned for Juneteenth:
- DuSable Museum June 19 Barbecue and Block Party, Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 57th Place. Presented in part by Chance the Rapper of Chicago. Art, food and fashion will be celebrated at this one-day event.
- MADD Rhythms celebrates Juneteenth: The Celebration, Sunday, 1 p.m., Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. Martin Luther King Drive. Free. Loads of live entertainment, plus local Bronzeville businesses and kids’ activities.
- 1865 Fest’s Juneteenth Celebration, June 17-19, 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Garfield Park, 300 N. Central Park Ave. Free.
- Celebrate Juneteenth at The Field, Monday, June 20, 11 a.m., The Field Museum. Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, will speak about Wells’ connection to the 1893 World’s Fair and Chicago. Free admission to Field on Mondays.
- Far South Community Development Corporation Juneteenth Festival, Saturday, 12-5 p.m., 11420 S. Halsted St. Online registration is required for this free event, celebrating Far South Side communities with live entertainment, food from black-owned restaurants, small businesses and a children’s fun zone.
- Juneteenth in Bronzeville 2022: A Day to Celebrate Freedom, Culture, Education and the Arts in Chicago, Saturday 3521 South King Drive, 2-5 p.m. Free admission, some activities require tickets.