Lyric Opera, Blu Rhythm Collective honor slain Chicago teen Kevin Ambrose with song, dance, and spoken word

By Stephen Raskauskas |

For a Lyric Opera community created performance, Blu Rhythm Collective rehearses at Harold Washington Cultural Center (Photo: Jaclyn Simpson)

Kevin Ambrose, a theater student at Columbia College, loved to perform ever since he was a child, explained his mother Ebony. “I kind of grew up on Columbia’s campus, because my mom worked there,” Ebony said, “so I also grew up around the arts and always loved it. When it came time for me to have kids, I wanted them to have the freedom to do what they wanted to do. I didn’t want him to be stuck doing something because of someone else’s experience – or non-experience – doing something.”

Ebony encouraged Kevin to explore his interest in performing from an early age. “He and his sister took piano lessons with their Chicago Public School teachers in grammar school. In an afterschool program, another teacher knew how to play, and helped further along that interest.”

Kevin Ambrose

Later, Kevin became interested in dance through the family’s landlord, Pierre Lockett. A lead dancer with the Joffrey Ballet for 13 years, Lockett encouraged Kevin to join After School Matters, which partners with the Joffrey to provide training for young dancers.

Later as a student at Kenwood Academy High School, Kevin worked lights and sound at the theater and enjoyed exploring the technical aspects of producing performances. Simultaneously, he was involved with a program at the Museum of Science and Industry from eighth grade until he graduated from high school.

“It’s about balance, and freedom. I wanted to give them the chance to do things that everybody else gets to do, particularly non-black kids. I wanted them to have things I didn’t have.”

Kevin finished his freshman year at Columbia College in 2013. In May, he and several friends planned to hang out to celebrate the successful completion of the school year. Kevin wanted to meet Michael Dye at the 47th Street Green Line El Station, located between South Prairie Avenue and South Calumet Avenue, so that he could safely accompany him to the gathering.

Kevin spoke with Dye on the phone as he approached the station, telling him, “I’m on the way, I can see the train now,” according to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times. When the train arrived, he heard gunshots and saw someone running. When Dye exited the station, he saw that Kevin had been shot. Within an hour, Kevin passed away.

Four years later, at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, located just blocks from where Kevin was fatally shot, young performers with the Blu Rhythm Collective are rehearsing a newly-created performance piece that honors Kevin’s life.

Blu Rhythm is one of three organizations partnering with Lyric Opera of Chicago to produce community created performances as part of its Chicago Voices initiative. Chicago-area organizations applied to be a part of the program, which affords them the opportunity to collaborate with professional artists hired by Lyric, as well as a $10,000 stipend. After a summer of development, Blu Rhythm presents Kevin’s story along with stories told by Kuumba Lynx and YOLO Boomers at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on Sunday, September 10, 2017 at 2:00 pm.

Tanji Harper (left), founder of Blu Rhythm Collective, and Ebony Ambrose (right), mother of Kevin Ambrose

Tanji Harper, founder of Blu Rhythm, and Ebony Ambrose have known each other almost their entire lives. “We grew up as kids together,” Harper said, “but then we lost touch for a long time. We found each other again through Kevin. He auditioned for After School Matters, and I had him for a while. Then he said to me, ‘You know my mama.’” Harper said that she was inspired to share Kevin’s story because, “He’s the first kid who got killed who I knew personally and got killed through no fault of his own.”

In the performance, “We’re following four characters who are dancers,” Harper said. “All four characters have very different home lives, which influence the decisions that they make. They’re all being offered a really interesting opportunity and we see how each character deals with the responsibility of making choices.”

Not surprisingly, Ebony explained that as a mother who has lost a child to senseless gun violence, “you live with the pain on a daily basis. There’s not a day I don’t think about Kevin and think he should be here. There’s hardly a day that goes by when I don’t come into contact with somebody – who I’ve never even met – who somehow knew him.”

“It’s not an end, it’s a beginning. I’ve been going to court every month since 2013. We don’t even have a trial date yet,” she said. “No one told me it would be like that. I thought it was going to be all LA Law up in there, with the prosecutor all gung ho to lock the guy up. No. It’s not like that. It’s frustrating all around.”

Ebony said that she feels Blu Rhythm’s upcoming performance is “a perfect vehicle” to tell his story. “There are a lot of kids in the Blu Rhythm who knew my son. Tanji knew my son. It feels organic, and right, and not forced. I’m really looking forward to seeing the whole thing. I thank them for taking this on and really telling his story. I hope people take something out of it. I hate to use the word lucky, but we are lucky to have this experience.”

Ebony reflected on what she has learned in the last several years while young performers dance, sing, stomp, and shout in the room next door. She lamented that, in the city she has called home her entire life, “When our sports teams are winning, it’s all one Chicago. But when a crime happens, people try to exclude themselves by saying, ‘that’s not my Chicago, I live in a different part of the city.”

For a Lyric Opera community created performance, Blu Rhythm Collective rehearses at Harold Washington Cultural Center (Photo: Jaclyn Simpson)

“There’s no ‘one and done’ solution,” she explained, going on to mention many of the factors that contribute to crime from the economy to the job market to our educational system.

She also wonders, “What do I tell kids who are just like my son?”  Many parents, she said, try to create what she calls “Good Kid Island,” where all of the “good kids” can socialize in a safe, enclosed environment. Ebony stressed that parents need to reach out, “not just to kids like Kevin,” to get them into after school programs or other activities to help foster community.

“I need to look out for little Ray Ray down the street always acting up. Tell his mom about the program. You can’t isolate those children and then expect them to grow up and be all right – that makes no sense. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but even if I can just do the tiniest bit, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

For more information about this and other Lyric Opera community created performances, visit Lyric’s website.