Me…Jane: The Dreams & Adventures of Young Jane Goodall, is a delightful theater experience, a musical telling of conservationist Jane Goodall’s childhood, when she had a special toy chimpanzee named Jubilee. Together, Jane and Jubilee discover the miracles of nature on their shared outdoor adventures, and young Jane imagines spending the rest of her life helping animals in Africa. The show runs through Nov. 6.
It’s also the inaugural presentation of an innovative partnership between Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and Northwestern University’s Imagine U, a nationally recognized producer of theater for young audiences. The partnership is called Learn and Imagine Together Through Theater (LITTT) and is held at The Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts.
The program combines lesson plans and learning experiences before and after attending the play. By Nov. 4, every third-grade class in District 65 will have watched a performance and had an opportunity to interact with the Northwestern students in the cast.
“The experience of seeing the play is the epicenter of a larger learning experience,” said Rives Collins, the show’s director, who is also an award-winning professor in the Department of Theatre for the past 35 years and head of the Theatre for Young Audiences program.
District 65 drama teachers were sent a video that introduced the students to the Me..Jane story and to Northwestern. The tour took them backstage to meet Collins and Journey Cole, the assistant director, plus a peek at rehearsals, the set designs and the show’s costumes. The video features Nolan Robinson, a Northwestern graduate who grew up and attended school K-12 in Evanston.
For some third graders, it will be the first time they attend a live theater performance and visit a college campus.
The play is clever, easy to follow and holds the interest of young audiences as well as their chaperones. During Friday afternoon’s performance, only three children needed to be escorted to the restrooms, a telling indicator of restlessness and boredom, according to the director.
The cast is top notch. Sami DeVries as Jane is flawless, embodying Jane as the warm, genuine and plucky girl she must have been in her youth. Her stuffed chimpanzee, Jubilee, is a worthy co-star.
Mum, played by Jonyca Jiao, brings to life the loving influence who nurtured her daughter to fulfill her potential and then some. Astute theatergoers may recognize Jiao from her role as Mulan in last season’s The Ballad of Mulan.
The Northwestern students (Sean Zuckerman, Isadora Coco Gonzalez, Nick Hollenbeck and Angelena Browne) who play the other adults and a variety of animals in the show are clearly having a great time. Their animals (chickens, squirrels and one furry dog) are immensely appealing and quite funny. Gonzalez brings relatable angst to her chicken on the verge of becoming a hen.
The themes woven throughout the play are beautiful and timeless. Jane’s mother is supportive and encouraging of who Jane is, without trying to change her, despite plenty of nosy naysayers offering negative commentary. She teaches Jane to trust her instincts and to study hard to pursue her dreams.
All the songs are catchy, but they have messages, too, that might resonate with the adults in the audience as well as the kids. What Are You Going to Do Today? is especially moving.
Chatting with students informally after the show elicited plenty of positive feedback. Lynn Kelso, the artistic mentor at Imagine U, said that after the morning performance, as the children were exiting the Josephine Louis Theater on their way to lunch, she heard one young girl exclaim, “This is the best show I’ve seen in all my nine years!”
At Sunday afternoon’s performance, a first-grader sitting nearby wanted to know how to speak to animals the way Jane did.
There was a talkback offered after Sunday’s performance that allowed anyone interested to meet the cast and ask questions. The children who spoke up liked it when Jane made friends with the chicken and were happy when she met the squirrels. There was a lot of interest in the squirrels’ temporarily missing pizza. The children related to the interactions between Jane and her dog, Rusty, played enthusiastically and adorably by Zuckerman.
There were lots of questions. Does the door to Jane’s house work? How does Jane get up into the tree? How long did it take to learn the words to the songs? How many helpers work there to make the show? (And predictably, was it a real pizza?)
Thalia Ionita, who was there with three girlfriends, her mom and another adult, liked how Jane was more confident after the scene with Rusty. She couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. All of the girls really liked the show.
But it’s not just for children: an adult at the talkback said it was the best show he’s seen in years.
Me…Jane was commissioned by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. and first produced there during the 2017-2018 season. It is based on the book by Patrick McDonnell, adapted by Patrick McDonnell and Aaron Posner, with music and lyrics by Andy Mitton.
Me…Jane is suitable for children 5 and older and runs 60 minutes in length. There is no intermission. Contact the Wirtz for additional information and tickets. Ticket holders are sent an electronic social story about the show to help young audience members understand what is taking place, a digital program and an adventure guide to learn more about Goodall and her work with chimpanzees and conservation.