Jabari Dreams of Freedom Uses History to Address Today’s Issues for Children

Jabari Photo


Maze Jackson

By all accounts, I consider myself to be a pro-Black man, so I was somewhat skeptical of a play entitled “Jabari Dreams of Freedom” being produced by The Chicago Children’s Theatre.  How could the producers at the Chicago Children’s Theatre possibly translate the dreams of a nine-year old Black child, most likely from the South or West side into a stage play.  I wasn’t sure whether to expect an urban version of “Leave it to Beaver” or “Chi-Raq for Kids.”  After seeing the play my assumptions could not have been further from the truth. I not only found myself engaged and entertained, I also learned a few things about Civil Rights Era that challenged that I didn’t even know.

“Jabari Dreams of Freedom” is the story of Jabari, a normal tween who is living a normal life, until, like many Chicago children, he is forced to deal with an incident of violence.  As Jabari struggles to cope with the incident, overcome his fears, and the challenge of just going outside,  his parents are forced to confront the realities of living in inner-city Chicago, from the barrage on negativity on the news, to youth violence, and issues of police brutality.  Writer Nambi Kelly skillfully weaves historical events from the Civil Rights Era into a tapestry of modern-day situations, to illustrate lessons that can be applied to some of the tough issues that plague our community today.  Kelly does not shy away from some of the hard truths that our children must meet, instead putting them in context that even nine-year olds can comprehend (although this 45-year-old was completely caught up in the storyline).

Jabari, played by 13-year-old Philip Cusic (right), encounters a young Barack Obama (Gavin Lawrence) in Chicago Children’s Theatre’s world premiere of Jabari Dreams of Freedom by Nambi E. Kelley. Performances are April 5-May 1 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. (Note: Philip Cusic alternates with another 13-year-old, Cameron A. Goode, as the title character in Jabari Dreams of Freedom.) Tickets: chicagochildrenstheatre.org or (872) 222-9555. Photo credit: Charles Osgood

“Jabari Dreams of Freedom” reminds of so many Disney movies that my kids “force” me to go see.  While we go for them, I wind up thoroughly entertained.  Jabari is no different.  Young Philip Cusic offers us an early glance someone I suspect we will be seeing a lot more of, in his role as Jabari.  Leslie Ann Sheppard took me through a range of emotions in her roles as Claudette Colvin and practically stole the show with her portrayal of young civil rights activist Ruby Bridges.  Gavin Lawrence, who played Jabari’s dad, was absolutely hilarious as Baby Obama.   

“Jabari Dream of Freedom” is an exploration of  realities that face our young people in a society plagued by violence through the eyes of a 9-year-old.  The play uses comedy, drama, suspense, and inspiration to teaches kids and parents how to use lessons from the past to develop relevant solutions for today.

While I saw the play with an audience full of students on a field trip, this play deserves to be more than a school field trip.  This play should be a family outing that can be used as an opportunity for families open dialogue.  This play creates the perfect opportunity for parents to have the discussions we talk about among ourselves as adults.  Unfortunately, our kids don’t have a water cooler, so let the discussion begin with them around “Jabari.”

This is a must see play for your family.

I rate it 3 1/2 stars.


A review of the children’s play, “Jabari Dreams of Freedom.”  Ideal for ages 9 & up

Written by Nambi E. Kelley     Directed by Lili-Anne Brown     Music Direction by Jaret Landon

Playing now through May 1st at the Chicago Children’s Theatre.


Phillip Cusic: Jabari (alternates the role with Cameron)

Cameron Goode: Jabari  (alternates the role with Phillip)

Gavin Lawrence: Jabari’s Dad, Obama, Young Obama

Patrick Agada: Emmet, ensemble

Emily Glick: Jabari’s mom, ensemble

Matt Keffer: News reporter, ensemble

Leslie Ann Sheppard: Claudette Colvin, Ruby Bridges, ensemble

(Click below to buy tickets)

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