Seventeen months into my time at Storycatchers and I finally attended a live performance by the Word Warriors at the Illinois Youth Center – Warrenville. I entered the facility for the first time with Storycatchers coworkers, ID and vaccination card in hand, ready to be directed to the Maya Angelou Alternative High School performance space. Beyond halls decorated with public health reminders and youth-made Black Lives Matter protest signs was the library – carefully adorned with pipe and drapes to create a formal stage.

Even in the thick plastic chairs set out for the audience, I immediately felt comfortable knowing that, after a year of preaching the power of youth stories, I would be able to leave the experience with the purest form of fulfillment. It was exciting to be present at an event that I’ve heard about, read about, written about, but never seen in person. The library buzzed with energy: with joy, anticipation, and the understanding that we were all meant to share something special.

We all wanted to bring that energy to life and couldn’t contain our applause and celebratory cheers as Program Manager, Thomas Murray, introduced the Word Warriors performers and set the scene.

There isn’t a mask on the market with the ability to obscure our smiles. All of us – staff, audience, and youth – were beaming.

The Heartless preview performance captured a pivotal moment of identity-embracing and weaved in the tension many of us have felt as we get to know ourselves better during the pandemic. The passion in these stories helped transform the library into a dining room, a usual hangout spot with a best friend, and a high school basketball court. We all saw ourselves on stage in one or more of the characters, and during the post-show discussion audience members wondered about the ensemble’s experiences working with a script that directly addressed prejudice. They noted that:

Anyone could relate to the story in this musical. We’ve felt like our parents don’t understand us, that they’re too strict or too ‘old school.’ And we’ve all hoped that someone would see our worth.

And with that, I was hooked! The songs, the pride, the transformation all made it so I immediately set a countdown clock in anticipation of the full performance. I promise to bring enough tissues to share with any reader who wants to join me for Heartless in its entirety.

Thank you to Thomas, Mbali, Abby, and Martin for the thrill of live performance and, of course, thank you to the Word Warriors ensemble.

For the first time live since early 2020, the Word Warriors at IYC-Warrenville staged their preview performance, entitled Heartless. This performance was also a first for individuals who started at Storycatchers during the pandemic, like our Community Engagement Manager. Soon our supporters will be invited back into the facilities to celebrate Heartless as a full performance. It may be a first for some, but for many, it’s going to feel like the first time in the audience all over again.

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