JACKED! When a fairytale can be more and Do more
by Idris Goodwin
“The number of cases of children entering the foster care system due to parental drug use has more than doubled since 2000,” said the voice on the radio, and later added that a great deal of these cases were occurring in Kentucky, where I was living at the time. More specifically I was in Louisville, working as the producing artistic director of StageOne Family Theatre. I was drawn to making theater for children and families because of my background in both writing and education. I felt a kinship with educators, schools, young people and those who support them.
I wanted to know more about this problem sweeping the midwest. What was it like to be a young person watching their parents transform before their eyes and eventually be taken from them. I reached out to Lindsey Bale, Foster Care Liaison at Jefferson County Public Schools who graciously made the time to share stories and perspectives on all she’d seen in her work. The thing that hit me the most is she told me that many of these kids feel like it’s their fault. I asked her to be blunt with me, “Can something as serious and heartbreaking as parents and children being separated due to drug addiction be fodder for a play for young audiences?” Bale pondered for just a moment before saying, “If students see a play and they can relate to it, then they may be more willing to have a conversation about that and know that there are other students that are also in the same situation.”
Though I agreed, I still didn't exactly know how to approach a play on the subject. I kept marinating on that question and the many stories Lindsey shared. That’s usually where my plays begin, a question that I file away until a spark hits.
Then I got a call from Cleveland Playhouse. Their education department was interested in commissioning me to write a tourable play about... something. So I said to Cleveland Playhouse “How bout an entertaining, high energy, colorful and rhythmic play for the youngest possible audience that, depending on one’s age and level of awareness could operate on multiple levels?”
“Say more” they said
“Well it’s a hip hop take of Jack and The Beanstalk that’s also a meditation on the effects of substance abuse in under-resourced communities.”
Seriously, Jack and The Beanstalk just popped out of my mouth at that moment. A bit of a surprise even to me because Jack and The Beanstalk is one of my least favorite fairy tales. Don't get me wrong, you can’t beat that set up: Poor kid trades the family cow for some magic beans, throws them in the ground, a huge climbable beanstalk sprouts up, he discovers a sky castle, he steals a gold harp and a gold egg laying goose, but woops this sky castle in inhabited by a giant who likes to eat regular sized humans, the giant comes after him, Jack gets to the bottom first, chops down the stalk, the giant falls to his death and Jack and his mom live happily ever after with stolen magical objects, right? I was always very dissatisfied with the death of the giant and the kid’s theft of these magical objects without recourse. To me, the place where Jack in the Beanstalk historically ends is the place where the story just starts getting interesting.
But the great thing about folk stories is that they belong to everyone. So why not put my own spin on it? The ingredients are there, the circumstance, the opportunity, the unknown, the repercussions, and most importantly choices. End of the day, I believe young people need to watch other young people navigate choices and the impact of what they choose. The catalyst of beanstalk is a young person so desperate for change he goes to great lengths, acts recklessly, stealing things he doesn't necessarily understand. What happens when those things Jack brings down from the Giant’s castle create changes, ripples and problems in his community? And quickly the people he knows and love transform before his eyes. How can he make this right? I had my concept, my own magic bean of an idea that would grow my 2019 remix of this old story.
Next, I would need some magic beats. I wanted this entire play to move to the pulse of hip hop beats, to be rendered in rhyme and verse, a nod to its fairy tale, storytime roots.
So, inside of StageOne Family Theater’s rehearsal space in downtown Louisville and also at Cleveland Playhouse, we gathered local artists, like the brilliant Louisville artist educators Rhythm Science Sound who created a custom score that carries the narrative from start to finish.
Through fall 2019 Cleveland toured JACKED! to locations all over their region and StageOne hosted performances in Louisville in early 2020, just moments before Covid 19 would bring theater for young audiences to a noisily screeching halt. Thankfully, both Cleveland Playhouse and Metro Theater in St. Louis invested in highly creative digital versions of JACKED! And now the text is available for others to create their own. So, this centuries old story of a boy and some magic beans continues on as does the urgent and necessary conversations about how we as a society care for the mental and physical wellness of our young and old.