Monique Whittington contemplates what it means to truly be an American during a performance of “1619: The Journey of a People, the Musical.” The musical will run at the Vittum Theater in Chicago over Juneteenth weekend.
In 2018, Ted Williams III, a political science professor at City Colleges of Chicago, decided to take a well-timed sabbatical. The Ashburn resident spent his time off mulling over how to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of African Americans’ arrival in America.
The first instinct, as a scholar, would be some sort of academic conference detailing that history, beginning in 1619.
“I started working on it, and then I said, ‘This is not what I want to do,’” Williams, 45, says with a laugh.
‘1619: The Journey of a People, The Musical’
When: June 17-19; and July 23
Where: The Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble St.
Instead, Williams, who is an actor and has a love for the performing arts, decided to merge his interests to create what became “1619: The Journey of a People, the Musical.”
With the help of several grants, the production opened 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 over Juneteenth weekend and also on July 23.
Juneteenth celebrates and examines the date in 1865 when African Americans first learned of their freedom from the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued two years prior. (The holiday is June 19, though the federal holiday is being observed on Monday this year.)
Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah Jones launched her “1619 Project” at the same time, but Williams said had no idea her project was in the works when he created his musical. While he initially reached out to her to collaborate, 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 academic space, it was a no-brainer for me to engage around this anniversary,” Williams said.
The production has been presented at colleges around the country. Williams describes it as a rumination through the ages on what it means to be a Black American, through hip-hop, jazz and blues music.
The 1619 performers pay homage to the protest movement for Black liberation during a performance of “1619: The Journey of a People, the Musical.”
During the pandemic, Williams, who also produced the show, partnered with the DuSable Museum and WBEZ radio to present the musical virtually.
He is looking forward to continuing to perform the musical and engage students in three Chicago Public Schools this fall, and a cast album will be available for purchase for the first time this Juneteenth.
“I’m constantly concerned [about] the issues of violence and the issues of economic disparities and all of those issues. And so the show is just really a manifestation of that,” he says. “The doors just opened wide and we’re looking forward to continuing and really kind of being in more spaces and more places to share the story.”
While Williams hesitated to reveal many details of the musical before this weekend’s run, it does include the spirits of famous Black figures — from Booker T. Washington to Fred Hampton to Colin Kaepernick — debating the African American journey.
He even hints at a hip-hop debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois done through modern characters.
“We are really looking at what is the way to go forward? And what is our current condition now and how do we deal in this nation, that has been a real dichotomy for us,” Williams notes. “On one hand, it’s the land of opportunity. On the other hand, it’s the land of oppression and suffering.”
Williams says spreading this Black history in public schools is crucial to the future of Black America, and the response he’s received from students has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It is so, so critical that this history is not just for a month, or for a day,” he says. “But that it is celebrated all year round.”
Additional Juneteenth weekend events
Here are some Chicago-area celebrations planned for Juneteenth:
DuSable Museum’s Juneteenth BBQ 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 Chicago’s Chance the Rapper. Art, food and fashion will be celebrated at this all-day event.M.A.D.D Rhythms Celebrates Juneteenth: The Celebration, Sunday, 1 p.m., Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. Martin Luther King Drive. Free. A host of performances, along with local Bronzeville businesses and activities for the kids. 1865 Fest’s Juneteenth Celebration, June 17 to 19, 11 a.m. to 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 on Wells’ connection to the 1893 World’s Fair and Chicago. Free admission to Field on Monday. Far South Community Development Corporation Juneteenth Festival, Saturday, noon to 5 p.m., 11420 S. Halsted St. Online registration is required for this free event, celebrating the Far South Side communities with live performances, food from Black-owned restaurants, small businesses and a Kid’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 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission free, some activities require tickets.