A GoPride Interview

Jamal Howard

Classic story of "belonging" takes to the stage; chat with Corduroy director Jamal Howard

Mon. November 11, 2019  by Matt Inawat

it is really about finding that space and coming up with creative solutions
Jamal Howard

jamal howard

Classic story of "belonging" takes to the stage; chat with Corduroy director Jamal Howard

Emerald City Theatre's beloved production of CORDUROY is playing at Broadway In Chicago's Broadway Playhouse Theatre (175 E Chestnut) for a limited engagement from November 9, 2019 to January 5, 2020.

In this sweet adaptation of Don Freeman's classic book, a small bear's quest for a missing button leads to the friendship of a lifetime. After the lights are dimmed and the doors locked, the department store comes to life with circus elements and physical comedy. It's up to Corduroy to outsmart the Night Watchman as he waits for his new pal Lisa to return with her mother. Along with exciting scenes of clowning and mischief, the story teaches the importance of empathy and unconditional love.

The play CORDUROY was adapted for the stage by Barry Kornhauser and is based on the Corduroy and A Pocket for Corduroy books by Don Freeman.

GoPride talked with Jamal Howard, the Artistic Associate at Emerald City Theatre who's directing the production.

MI: Hi Jamal! So Corduroy - you're directing this beautiful play based on a classic story that's premiering downtown at the Broadway Playhouse this week. The show had an initial premier at the Athenaeum Theater here in Chicago earlier this year, right? How was it received?

JH: It was received very well it was a very successful run. The kids loved it. The whole audience loved it. One of the things about the show that I love is that it is very non-verbal. There is a lot of physical comedy and storytelling through body language and facial expressions and all of that and so it can, you can tell the story across a lot of different ages. A lot of people can be entertained by it and follow along so you can have anybody from ages 3 to 93 and they are in there and having a ball.

MI: That's awesome! So for those not familiar with the book, tell us a little bit about the story; and what drew you to the production.

JH: The book follows a little girl named Lisa and she is with her mom in the department store and she sees Corduoroy, the bear, in the toy department and she really wants him. She sees him and knows immediately that this is someone that belongs with her and that she could be a really good friend to Corduroy and give him a really wonderful home and her mom is like "no, this bear is broken. It's missing a button and I'm not gonna buy this stuffed animal right now," essentially. 

And they leave the store and the store closes and it is nighttime and Corduroy comes to life and he heard what they said and he wants to find a friend. He wants to find Lisa and he wants to find a home. But he knows that he is missing a button and that he needs to find his lost button to be able to get home and to find a friend. So he goes on this bog adventure in the department store to find a button and he experiences a lot of new environments and new things and creates a little bit of a mess along the way. And then there is a night watchmen who is looking over the department store, while it is closed down at night, and he keeps finding these things that are awry and wrong and he is not sure why because all he sees is this stuffed animal bear that is sitting there in the mess. 

So the next morning Lisa and her mother come back and Lisa has been bugging her mom all night long to get the bear and so finally they come back and they get the bear and take him home and it ends very lovely. Lisa and Corduroy both have a friend and they form a friendship and Corduroy finds a home.

MI: Yeah. What a great message that highlights the sense of belonging and finding a home!

JH: Oh 100%. One of the things that drew us to this piece was that it is so much about finding a place to belong and a place where you feel supported and loved and where you have friendship and that is what a home is. So, it is really about finding that space and coming up with creative solutions to get there. Figuring out how to persevere in the face of adversity to get what you need in life. 

MI: So take us back a little bit. Where did you find your passion for theatre? I think I read that your love of musicals started when you were eight?

JH: Yeah. Probably even before that. I grew up doing theatre, musicals, at a place called Children's Musical Theatre San Jose, which is in San Jose, California. That is where I grew up. I saw one of my sister's, my older sister, their friends performing in a show and I was like oh, that looks like fun. My parents were trying figure out exactly what I would get into. I tried soccer, but competitive sports like that just weren't my thing. I wasn't into it. 

And then they were like yeah, let's try theatre, let's try musicals and I just fell in love right away. The first show I ever did was Aladdin. It wasn't Disney's Aladdin, it was some version of it that took place in China, cause why not? It was like from the original story and fairy tale and less from like what Disney ran with it specifically. But the first role I ever played was a panda security guard where I was a panda whose job was being a security guard. 

So I had so much fun and a blast doing it and I just kept going back to that company and doing more and more shows where I ended up doing like probably three or four shows a year at least. It was rare if I wasn't working on a show. I just grew up in that program. I did shows and stuff in high school, too. I love storytelling through a live performance and where you are in a room with a community of people and you are experiencing something live in front of you that's never gonna happen again. Like they will perform the show again, but it is gonna be a little different because it is a live show and they are always different.

MI: That's what makes it so fun.

JH: Yeah, 100% that is what makes it so fun. Both as a performer or as a theatre artist and also an audience. It is always fun.

MI: So how long have you been in Chicago?

JH: I've been in Chicago for about 14 years. So I have been here for a little while. I came here for college. I went to Loyola and I graduated with a theatre degree and a P.R. and advertising degree. I had a full double major going on. But I came out to Chicago to go to school and stayed because I want to make theatre my business and my career and this is such a wonderful city to do that in. 

MI: Tell us a little about the Emerald City Theatre also. It is an amazing theatre here in Chicago for the benefit of children.

JH: Yeah. Emerald City's mission is to help Chicago children creatively face the world. So in our artistic programming we are constantly trying to find scripts and plays that help give good examples or give good themes or ways for kids to face their real lives in a more brave way and with more courage and more heart and with more curiosity. We take our art very seriously even though we are having a lot of fun and we are doing shows for kids and families and we joke around a lot. I was just at rehearsal and there were lots of laughs being thrown around. But we definitely want to make sure the kids are getting the best show they can possibly get. We want kids to come in and be able to see themselves represented on stage. That is another big part of our artistic programming. We think it is important that if a kid sees a show, they see themselves in a character on the stage. Whether physically see themselves or just their character and personality traits. When they see themselves in it, they feel more empowered to take on the world. To go out in their everyday and have strength and courage and clarity in where they are going and what they want to do. 

Whether there are kids that are actually interested in making theatre or whether there are just kids who like to go see theatre we want to make sure that they are completely fulfilled by our shows. We also have a really great education department that is really big and vast and has some wonderful programming that also empowers kids to learn how to tell stories and how to create characters and how to put on a show. Those skills are so important whether those kids end up going into theatre, I think theatre education is one of the most underrated parts of education, the full education spectrum, because theatre education, which includes going to see shows as well, teaches you how to communicate with each other. How to problem solve. How to come together across differences and work on a common goal,so I just find that participating in theatre, whether you end up doing it professionally or not, it helps build life skills no matter what industry you are in.

MI: Totally agreed! Have any of the theatrical productions touched on LGBTQ-type themes?

JH: Somewhat. So last year we actually did a production of "Fantastic Mr. Fox". We performed it at Victory Gardens Theatre on their main stage space and it was a really great artistic success. I really love that show. I choreographed it and so with "Fantastic Mr. Fox," because a lot of the characters were tiny animals, we took out a lot of the gender-specifics especially with the kid characters. We didn't want to place a gender on these kid characters that are animals. It does seem like it didn't need to be that and it did seem a little responsible to refer to them in non-gender terms. 

We also had a character of Badger, we had a woman play that character, but we didn't change that the character is married and has a wife in the script, but we didn't change the gender of that person's spouse. It was a woman married to another woman in that show and that is actually a very interesting and amazing anecdote. The actor told us after the show - the kid was about 11 or so, an 11 year old girl, after seeing "Fantastic Mr. Fox", went to her parents in the lobby and she came out to them. She said "hey those characters on stage, like them, I am gay myself." The parents then went and told that actor that plays that character and they were so amused and happy that that happened and that really touched my heart, all of our hearts, because we were so filled with love on that one because it is amazing when you see characters on stage and you see them with their lives in a way that is comfortable and you see gay characters on stage living out their lives in a comfortable way. In the way that they are. That can really open up doors for the community.

M: It is one thing to see it on TV or on the big screen, but when you have live people performing in an intimate setting that you can connect to... that is such a great story.

JH: It is. It is things like that that make what we do at Emerald City so important and so impactful. It is why we take our art so seriously and why we are putting our best foot forward because we have no idea who going to come into the room and how they are going to experience the show and what is going on in their lives outside of the show. We want them to be able to come in and learn from the show and be inspired by the show and then creatively face the world outside. 

A lot of the kids that come to our show, it is actually their first time seeing a show in a professional theatre. We have this initiative called "The One Fund" and for every $20 donated a CPS student gets a free show and a free copy of the book associated with that show. Almost all of our shows are based on a book, so we are trying to promote literacy as well as promoting theatre and the arts in general. By that initiative we end up getting a lot of kids who this is their first time ever being in a theatre so we very much to make sure that their first time going to see a live show is a great experience.

MI: Is there anything else you want to share about Corduroy?

JH: Yeah, that the show is very, I said this before, but it has a lot of non-verbal communication in it and the part of Corduroy is played by this wonderful actor, John Claudio, who is a professional clown and acrobat and he is flipping all over that stage and doing some amazing things, both with his body and just being able to flip and land in a cool position or different fun things like that, but also he just so expressive with his face and his body that he can just convey an emotion without any words and it is just so inspiring to watch. The rest of the cast are all really good and fun and talented. 

They are really fun to watch. I just find that, even though the show is for ages 3 and up, it really is very enjoyable for everyone who comes to it. The book was written in 1968, so it is an old classic that a lot of people grew up reading and reading to their kids so a lot of people find it enjoyable to come and see this old classic book come to life.

MI: So just one final question. Probably the toughest question you have ever gotten in an interview. If there were a musical for the story of your life, what would be the title of that musical? 

JH: Oh boy. What a great question. I guess a phrase that is used to describe me sometimes is "Oh Jamal, he is just happy to be here." So maybe something along those lines.

MI: Happy To Be Here, that is pretty cool.

JH: "Happy To Be Here." That is what it would be.

MI: That sounds like a great musical title!

Emerald City Theatre (ECT) is Chicago's largest theater for young audiences, reaching children 0 – 15-years-old through its three pillars of work: artistic, education, and outreach. Serving an average of over 60,000 children and their grown-ups annually, the company has created over 100 productions in Lakeview, Lincoln Park, and Downtown Chicago.

Tuesdays: December 31 at 10AM
Wednesdays: November 13 at 10:30AM & November 27 at 10AM
Thursdays: November 14, December 12, 19 at 10:30AM & December 26, January 2 at 10AM
Fridays: November 15, December 13, 20 at 10:30AM & November 29, December 27, January 3 at 10AM
Saturdays at 10AM
Sundays at 10AM
With an additional performance on Monday, December 23 at 10AM.

Individual tickets for CORDUROY range in price from $17.50 - $25. Individual tickets will be available by calling the Broadway In Chicago Ticketline at (800) 775-2000 or by visiting www.BroadwayInChicago.com. Tickets are available now for groups 10 or more by calling Broadway In Chicago Group Sales at (312) 977-1710


Interviewed by Matt Inawat. Ron Matthew Inawat is president of the GoPride Network and contributes to ChicagoPride.com, PrideLA.com and other sites within the GoPride Network.