Cast onstage during a performance of "1619: The Journey of a People."

A new musical, “1619: The Journey of a People,” begins with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Point Comfort, Virginia on August 20th, 1619. From there, “1619” creator Ted Williams III, along with a crew of Hyde Parkers, take audiences on a journey through American history. 

After more than two years of pandemic delays, “1619” opened this year at the Vittum Theater on June 19th (Juneteenth), with a final showing this Saturday, July 30th.

“I don't call it African American history, I call it American History,” said Williams. “Black history is American history.” 

The musical traces this history through the nation’s Revolutionary and Civil wars, the post-war Reconstruction Era, the Harlem Renaissance, the 1960s civil rights movement and the modern Black Lives Matter movement. Accompanying this history lesson is a crash course in the legacy of Black music. The production’s score features hip-hop, jazz, blues, as well as West African drumming and spirituals.

Williams, an Ashburn-based educator turned playwright, wrote and produced the show. It’s directed by Hyde Parker Cynthia “Cyndi” Walls. 

A Chicago native, Williams said his love affair with the performing arts began at a young age, as he frequently attended auditions for local commercials as a child. Matriculating at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Williams’ close proximity to Broadway in New York City kept him engaged in theater. 

He returned to Chicago in 2000, where he earned his master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Williams went on to host the weekly talk show “The Professors” with local PBS affiliate WYCC. Today, he teaches political science at Kennedy-King College, a City College of Chicago in Englewood. 

Originally premiering in August 2019, the musical coincided with the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved peoples to the colonies. With a background in education, political science and the performing arts, Williams wanted to create something that wouldn’t just teach audiences this history but also connect with them emotionally. 

“I realized that even in trying to create a symposium or some sort of conference around the 400th anniversary, that it's been done… I want to make something that will stick.”

The musical debuted at Kennedy-King College, and Williams said it was met with a flurry of national interest.

“Once we did that show it just was kind of like a firestorm,” said Williams.

The cast was soon invited to perform at Hampton University, a mere two miles from the original 1619 landing site. Following performances at Illinois’ Wheaton and Elmhurst Colleges, the cast performed for Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. 

“And then (we) start selling out shows,” said Williams. “We had a bunch of churches that called us and that sort of thing, and then the pandemic hit.” 

Though in-person theater ground to a halt, the cast and crew staged several virtual performances during the country’s lockdown, including an August 2020 show live-streamed with the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center,  740 E 56th Pl., and WBEZ.

This summer, Williams said, “1619’s” return to in-person performances have been met with renewed interest. The cast was invited to perform in Clarksville, Tennessee for the city’s inaugural Juneteenth festival last month, and are scheduled for a month-long run in Evanston starting in February 2023. 

With help from Chicago’s Neighborhood Initiatives program, Williams is also planning a series of shows on the South Side this year, and has turned the production into a curriculum to teach young students about the role of Black Americans in U.S. history. So far, Williams said, four Chicago Public Schools have picked it up.

“It's just a very exciting time for the work that we're doing, and I just feel like I'm along for the ride,” said Williams. “I really want to make sure that I get out of the way, because this is bigger than me.”

Williams hopes this idea, that the issues facing Americans are bigger than just one person or one group, is what audiences take away from “1619.” 

“When people get on television, and they talk about Chicago, or when our former president (Trump) talked about Baltimore and Chicago and these ‘horrible places,’ what he did not understand was these places are America. They represent you and they represent me,” said Williams. “This is all of our problems. The ghettos in the United States are not minorities’ problems. They're not poor people's problems. They're America's problem.” 

Ultimately, Williams said he wants viewers to leave the theater with a sense of hope.

“I want people to walk out of the theater like this, I want them to be thinking, ‘what can I do?’ And that's for everybody.”

“1619: The Journey of a People” has its final showing at Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble St., on Saturday, July 30. Tickets are on sale now. 

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