‘A Chance in the World’ shows triumph after adversity in foster care

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STEVE PEMBERTON SPEAKS with a group of young men enrolled in the Black Male Leadership Academy.

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader

I was able to see a film screened at AMC River East a few days ago, and it centered on this country’s foster care system. It was a courageous story of Steve Pemberton, who grew up in a number of foster care homes. This film revealed the horrid and difficult conditions under which he lived with his last foster family, headed by Willie, played by Laurence Hilton-Jacobs, whom audiences love from playing Cochise in “Cooley High,” Charles in “Claudine,” Freddie ‘Boom Boom’ Washington in “Welcome Back Kotter,” Rommel in “Youngblood” and Joe Jackson in “The Jacksons: An American Dream.” Willie’s wife, Betty is played by Kelly Owens. It is based on the book by Pemberton called A Chance in the World: A Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past and How He Found a Place Called Home.

Pemberton grows up with the last name of Klakowicz, even though he is African American. In the Robinson household, he is ridiculed mostly by the mother Betty and other foster siblings who have been placed in the home. He is verbally, mentally, emotionally and physically abused by the mother and the other son in the home. Pemberton is placed in this home when he is around 11 years old, and when he has broken one of the many rules of the household, he is forced to recite sayings that really amount to him belittling himself such as, “I will never amount to anything in life.”

TERRELL RANSOM JR., as Steve Pemberton, sits alone on the stairwell leading into the basement of the Johnson home, where he spends much time trying to understand the seemingly dire circumstances into which the foster system has led him.

He is not allowed to read books in the mother’s presence, instead relegated to the basement where he escapes from reality and spends much time, when Betty doesn’t want to be bothered with him.

While Willie is not as mean, he is also not as nurturing, but he seems to connect with Pemberton, after Pemberton figures out that Willie can’t read and he offers to help him out.

At some point, he has an opportunity to enroll in the Upward Bound Program in school, but only after Betty is nearly threatened by school officials to relent and let him attend. This program is headed by once maligned actor Tom Sizemore, whom I haven’t seen on the big screen or any other screen in years. In 1998, after struggling publicly with a drug addiction, he entered rehab for his problems.

“In A Chance in the World,” Sizemore plays John Sykes, who after Pemberton is beaten badly in the Johnson home, takes the 17-year-old into his home and eventually becomes his legal guardian. Afterward, Pemberton successfully beats the odds and graduates Boston College. In 2011, he joined the Walgreens Corporation and his last position was as Vice President Diversity and Inclusion, Chief Diversity Officer.

Tonya and Steve Pemberton

Pemberton lives in the Chicago area with his wife and two children, and he is Chief Resource Officer for Globoforce. He joined with Mighty Small Pictures and producer Mark Vadik to distribute this film under an indie banner. “A Chance in the World” is a great look into not only the absolutely sad parts of Pemberton’s life, but the resolve that he finally finds to seek out his biological parents—learning that his birth mother is white and father is Black—and to set his ship right, so to speak. The key, according to the movie, when you are faced with what seems like an endless bad situation, is to find solace in something (in Pemberton’s case, it was literature) and to fight adversity in every way that you can that makes you recognize your worth and your ability to triumph over dire circumstances.

In 2016, there were an estimated 437,000 children in the foster care system, and I’m sure many of them are in households that are not treating them as they should be treated—like human beings, as opposed to just something to be dealt with in order to receive a monthly check. “A Chance in the World” isn’t just a novel or a film; it is part of a movement that Pemberton and his wife, Tonya, have founded. The Chance in the World Foundation supports aspiring youth in an effort to help them reach their goals. Through Steve’s miraculous story, his memoir has inspired young people to persevere, to realize they aren’t alone and, most importantly, to realize the power of possibility.

A video that highlights a bit of Pemberton talking about the film can be found at: https://www.stevepemberton.io/achanceintheworldmovie.

A panel discussion that was streamed into the theatre after the movie included, among others, Pemberton, the real-life Sykes, a representative from a foster care agency and Darryl McDaniels, a member of the Hip-Hop group Run DMC, who was a product of the foster care system and who has a youth organization of his own. This is a phenomenal film about a boy who persevered and grew into a man who is helping youth across the country achieve their God-given potential. Check online for upcoming screening events in the area.

Mies Julie at Victory Gardens

Set in a remote South African post-apartheid village, “Mies Julie” tells the story of Julie and farm laborer John, who have grown up together. During one steamy, feverish, primal passion-filled night, when Mies Julie is just being very obstinate, flirtatious and hard to deal with, their two lives cross in ways that are unimaginable and worthy of death to John.

“Mies Julie adds a new political dimension to the classic and fleshes out more fully the contemporary issues of race and power, and gender and power through the lens of post-apartheid South Africa,” says Artistic Director Chay Yew. “It’s a complex dance that so many of us walk on a day-to-day basis.”

This performance, whose end some may find predictable, is filled with seething dialogue and annoying situations brought on by Mies Julie’s arrogant “white privileged” attitude. Her behavior is so reprehensible at times that an audience member yelled out the “B” word, after one of her tirades against John. On the other hand, John is trying to maintain his place as simply a Black employee of a white landowner, albeit one who has grown up with Julie and who has some romantic leanings toward her. (Editor’s Note: I found the audience member’s expletive even more reprehensible).

It concludes the current 43rd season for Victory Gardens, and is adapted from August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” Audience members should be aged 18 and over for mature content, because of intimate sexual scenes. “Mies Julie” is a quick 70 minutes and also examines what’s happening now in South Africa with squatters and with a new government advocating a land redistribution plan that would take land away from white homeowners and return parcels back to Blacks. It stars Heather Chrisler as Mies Julie, Jalen Gilbert as John and Celeste Williams as John’s mother, Christine. Victory Gardens is located at 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., and the play runs until June 24. The theatre does a good job with including “A Brief History of South Africa” pullout in the stagebill.

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