By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ
Physical Theater Festival Chicago, back for its sixth season, announced exciting schedule updates, including the additions of its first-ever off-site production: “Eventide,” which is a beautiful circus theater show by 3AM Theatre (New York/Puerto Rico) featuring a former Cirque du Soleil performer and a former Martha Graham company soloist. A second added show is “Tic Tac Tock,” a musical clown show in French and English by Mrs. Flower (Belgium, U.K.).
All told, physical theater acts and artists from Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Puerto Rico, India, the U.K. and Chicago promise to wow audiences for 10 consecutive days of “theater that moves you.” There is something for everyone in this festival, and one particular offering stands out.—“Freeman.”
Following its critically acclaimed, sold out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, “Freeman” makes its Midwest debut as the largest international production ever presented by Physical Theater Festival.
Throughout time and across waters, the show weaves the story of William Freeman, a Black man driven to violence in the United States, together with those of David Oluwale, Sarah Reed, Sandra Bland, Daniel M’nag|hten and Michael Bailey. The show explores the unspoken links between systemic racism, incarceration and mental health in the U.S. and in the UK. The controversial lives and deaths of these real-life protagonists also highlight why it is necessary for movements like Black Lives Matter to exist in the 21st Century.
Despite being from the UK, four of the show’s six characters are from the U.S., and it is written by Camilla Whitehill. Strictly Arts artistic director Corey Campbell, creator and star of “Freeman,” is becoming a rapidly emerging young Black voice from the arts leading the fight for social justice in England. These stories are threaded together and told through physical theater, spoken word, Gospel singing, shadow puppetry and more.
William Freeman was a young man of African-and Native-American descent who had a troubled youth. He was in prison on arguably a wrongful conviction for stealing a horse, when he suffered a brain injury, after being beaten by his overseers. His injury left Freeman, 16, nearly deaf and raised questions about his sanity.
In March 1846, roughly six months after he was released from prison, he was accused of murdering four members of the Upstate New York Van Nest family in their home. Freeman was identified by a victim who survived the attack. He was captured and brought to jail despite an angry mob who wanted to see him hanged immediately.
William Seward, who later served as Secretary of State under President Lincoln, agreed to defend Freeman. Seward strongly believed the insane were not responsible for their actions, not a commonly held view at the time. Eventually, Freeman was granted a new trial, but didn’t live to see it.
History is bound to repeat itself when the thumb is permanently bearing down on the loop button, so has anything really changed? The Guardian called Freeman “a revelation, a piece of stunning physical theatre.” Broadway Baby hailed its “outstanding artistic courage,” and Edinburgh Guide raved—“both exciting and devastating…everybody should see it.” “Freeman” started as a work in progress piece that quickly developed into national tours in 2017 and 2018. It sold out across all venues with standing ovations and amazing feedback, and was shortlisted for two Off West End Awards. As a company, Strictly Arts devises work that is engaging, thought provoking and unique. It strives to make the work created accessible to audiences around the world, while telling stories that forgotten communities can connect with. For more info about Strictly Arts, visit strictlyarts.co.uk.
Physical Theater Festival Chicago returns May 31-June 9, 2019, at Stage 773, opening with “Next Door” and closing with “Freeman.” Festival passes ($50 and $65) and single tickets ($15-$20) are on sale at physicalfestival.com. All events, except “Eventide,” take place at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book info, firstname.lastname@example.org.