When did water become a privilege? This is one of the questions up for interrogation in Parched: Stories of Water, Pollution, and Theft, devised by Free Street’s HQ Youth Ensemble. For this nearly 50-year-old, historic theatre company, putting Chicago on stage rightfully includes youth—and they don’t come to play.
What they’ve written and devised is shaping up to be a feat in ethnographic collection and embodiment. Under the direction of Katrina Dion, Free Street’s Director of Development and Youth Programs, the youth have collected over a hundred stories pertaining to the politics of water.
As we sit up on the third floor of the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse, Free Street’s home for the past thirtyish years, Dion remarks she’s “never had an ensemble lock into an issue the way they did with [Parched].” Over the course of a year of researching, collecting, and writing, they started with following the issues of water in the world then gradually narrowed into issues facing Chicago. “It is important to remember that when you give youth information, they know exactly what to do with it, and can probably teach it in a more engaging way.”
For the youth, this is an opportunity to critically engage with their peers on issues relevant to their daily lives. Aminata Harley, a current student at Gary Comer College Prep, joined Free Street because “it not only combines original theater and performance, but also adds social justice in a real way, with impact.” Though Flint Michigan was a major point of recognition for water injustice, the youth also pulled from their own experiences in public schools—not knowing what was worse, yellow water or no water. Parched is about amplifying this disparity and dreaming of a world of water access and sustainability.
Water is embedded in our lives, and for Si Yuan Ye, another HQ Youth Ensemble member, it’s also in his name, which means “deep sea green.” Born in China, he remembers his grandmother explaining the hidden idiom, “understanding which well your water came from.” This pressure of knowledge looms as Ye sifts through stories and questions, “I’m enjoying myself and having fun. Am I really battling these issues?”
In an attempt to flip the script, the youth have challenged themselves to make the experience more immersive. To them, this isn’t an issue that should continue to exist without urgency. It’s no mistake that the neighborhoods most severely impacted are on the South and West Sides of the city.
According to Harley, working as one has been their biggest strength. “We come in with a sense of maturity and a sense of togetherness. We rarely have issues in terms of bringing forth new ideas because of the overall culture of the ensemble. We have trust, it’s been pretty refreshing. Like, Kirkland water refreshing.”