Mudlark actors rehearse their production of "I'm Smiling Behind This Mask," about their experiences during the pandemic. Pictured from left to right are Jackson Stroth, Amelie Mugg, Gabe Warner-Fong, Vivian Solomon and Elise Perez. (Photo: Andrew Billiter)

“Okay class, raise your hands if the COVID-19 pandemic has been fun.”

“Good, I don’t see any.”

“Now, raise your hands if the pandemic helped you learn more about yourself and the world around you.”

“Ah, lots of hands. That’s more like it.”

Those are not quotes from the upcoming student-written performance, “I’m Smiling Beneath This Mask.”

But they do help sum up what the show, put on by the Evanston-based Mudlark Theater Company, is about.

A dozen local kids, from elementary school through high school, are on stage reciting poetry, putting on skits, telling narratives with a music background … all written by the youngsters themselves, all explaining that despite the challenges and the pain of COVID, it was still possible to smile beneath the mask.

“I feel like it changed me, because I was able to learn about perseverance,” says 14-year old Jackson Stroth, about the pandemic.

Jackson, an 8th grader at Haven Middle School and a member of the cast, says “this show is personal,” because unlike in most plays, where you portray someone else, in this production you are portraying yourself.

Mudlark actors rehearse their production of “I’m Smiling Behind This Mask.” (Photo: Andrew Billiter)

“6th grade was very stressful for me,” Jackson says. But the pandemic, with remote learning and a lot of alone time, “helped me slow things down and get ready for middle school. I learned to be better” around others, Jackson adds.

Mudlark is a theatrical organization for young actors.

Andrew Billiter, the group’s artistic director, says it’s important to take seriously what children have to say.

“We are presenting what kids do as art, as opposed to ‘art in training,’ ” he explains.

Mudlark is putting on five different shows this year, all revolving around how “people need a connection,” Billiter says.

And nowhere is that need for connection more obvious than after so much time behind a mask.

“People are desperate to have human contact,” Billiter says, an emotion which comes through in “I’m Smiling.”

Spoken word artist Khari B. directs of Mudlark “I’m Smiling Behind This Mask.” (Photo: David Sabat)

The director of this show is poet and “spoken word musician” Khari B, otherwise known as the Disco Poet, from Chicago.

“Young people have experienced the pandemic in so many ways,” he says.

Today’s adults “never went to virtual school.”

“We want to capture these stories,” he says, “and make them as authentic as possible.”

Khari says each performer was asked to write about what they hated in the pandemic, what they liked, how they grew, and then, anything else they wanted to add.

“We spent two years without knowing what people looked like,” he says. “We only saw the tops of their faces. We don’t know what was going on under the mask.”

Sometimes, what was going on was funny. Other times it was serious.

“This is to show there were positives” under the mask, he adds.

Part of Jackson’s peformance is about “when my parents got COVID and I had to navigate it.”

It happened during Chrismas break, and included a quarantine.

“Over Christmas,” Jackson says, “my parents had to be in a separate room and watch us open presents” through a doorway. “We wore shields and masks.”

It was, to say the least, a learning experience.

12-year-old Amelie Mugg agrees. A 6th grader at Joseph Sears School in Kenilworth, Amelie is also in “I’m Smiling.”

In fact, a poem she wrote is the closing segment of the show.

Amelie says she tried to make her works “funny, meaningful, and relatable, so a connection can be felt with the audience.”

Her closing poem, she says, is about a show.

“People are waiting, and start to get bored,” she explains.

But then, “all these new things happen,” like COVID-19. And you “meet new people.”

Even though the imaginary show in her poem never begins, the make-believe audience “still had positives.”

And so it was “BeneathThis Mask” for these creative youngsters.

They learned about the world around them, and learned about themselves. Even in tough times, that became reason enough to “Smile Behind This Mask.”

The show will be performed at Ridgeville Park District, 908 Seward St. May 27-29, and June 1-2. All shows are at 7 p.m. It’s free, but a donation is suggested.

And because they will be outdoors, you won’t even need to wear a mask. So you’ll be able to see everyone smile as they watch the talented children on stage.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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