We missed seeing J. in our Storycatchers program for a few weeks – he was busy doing other things. He is part of a special group of young men at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center called the Ambassadors. They’re long-term residents of the facility who are awaiting trial, typically on adult charges. While at the facility, they have turned things around, proven themselves to be mentors to others, and positive presences in the community. The Ambassadors keep full schedules, including regular meetings as a cohort, and special opportunities.

There are photos of past Ambassadors in the hallways, wearing their mustard-colored honorary blazers, and posing after various events and celebrations. I love walking by those pictures as we go back to be with the kids- seeing the young men and women we’ve worked with the past few years, remembering the changes they made for the better.

J. became an Ambassador a few months ago. He’s the strongest writer of our Storycatchers cohort. He wrote about 90% of last year’s musical, and has taught me a thing or two about second act structure. Truth be told, he has much better playwriting instincts than I do. He writes vivid scenes that get to the heart of the matter with not a word wasted.

J. came into the rehearsal room glowing. He has a play in process that is really special, and you can tell he loves hearing his scenes read aloud and seeing them staged.

Right at the top of the session, our ensemble circled up for warmups as usual. Then suddenly, as one of our teaching artists prepared to lead a warmup, J. just gracefully launched right into it. I remember J. as a shy young man who would barely volunteer two years ago. He led the warmup with total confidence, then passed the activity to another kid to lead. And the second kid followed, and led the activity, then we all awaited further instruction from J.

From the waistband of his jailhouse sweats, J.pulled a folded-up piece of paper.

“I have a tongue twister for y’all,” he said, and then he read:

“I am the very model of a modern major general
I’ve information vegetable and animal and mineral
I know the Kings of England and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo. in order categorical.
Repeat: I am the very model…”

I’m guessing that Modern Major General was included in the materials that the group studied before the cast of Hamilton visited the facility a few months ago, since Lin-Manuel Miranda quotes it in “Right Hand Man.”

Or maybe J. is just a Gilbert and Sullivan fan.

Later that evening, after setting up the environment and supervising the staging of the first scene of his play, he watched the rehearsal intently, then lobbied for his second scene to be staged.

J. will be leaving us sometime in December, when he turns 18. He’ll be going to the county jail where he’ll be waiting as his case makes its way through the labyrinth of the law.

I hope he’ll also finish the amazing play he’s started.

– Cheri Coons
Program Manager, Temporary Lockdown Ensemble
Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center