That's Weird, Grandma: The Holiday Special

by Ashley Campbell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday November 27, 2015

Spencer Meeks, Brandon Cloyd and Mary Winn Heider
Spencer Meeks, Brandon Cloyd and Mary Winn Heider  

Our city is in a lot of pain right now. Laquaan McDonald, 17, was murdered by a Chicago police officer last year and the horrific footage is now replayed across news and social media feeds alike. The killing of Chicago's youth, both by the hands of their peers and the adults responsible for protecting them, is unfortunately nothing new. However, the widespread circulation of each tragic occurrence has resulted in tremendous heartache, anger, and a demand for change.

In light of such atrocious events, I am pleased to share with you a recent performance by Barrel of Monkeys (BOM), an arts education theater ensemble serving the imaginations of Chicago's underserved youth for nearly two decades, that will re-instill your hope in the goodness of humanity. Their vision: a radically kind Chicago that champions children's ideas. Talk about using their powers for good...

This troupe of actors/educators/composers/goofballs creates an alternative learning environment for 3rd through 5th grade students in Chicago Public Schools by providing creative writing workshops, after-school programs, and public performances of their students' work.

"That's Weird, Grandma: The Holiday Special" features stories of awkward holiday parties, Christmas Eve adventures to the North Pole, how teachers spend their days off, and one student's conflicted relationship with candy. My first experience with this show was back in March while viewing "That's Weird, Grandma: The Musical." Now I can confidently say that the BOM cast is just as heartwarming and refreshing to see at the onset of winter as they are at its end.

All 16 stories, which make up this hour-long revue, can be found in the playbill. I highly suggest reading each before and after it is performed to receive the full effect of what these talented teacher-artists do. "Horsewolf," an older piece I found to be just as funny the second time around, sings the story of a horse whose job is to eat people's hair off their heads.

Horsewolf "likes marinating people's hair in applesauce" and REALLY dislikes shrimp. "Pig Named Jill" tells the tale of a little pig who had 5,000 family members -- all were attempting to steal and eat her delicious crab legs, so she tied them up into a spider web to keep them away. Something tells me that Horsewolf and Jill wouldn't be interested in going to dinner together.

Audience members can expect to spend most of the show uncontrollably laughing, giggling, snorting, and perhaps accidentally farting from the abundance of laughing, giggling and snorting. All costume pieces, albeit simple, are enjoyably over-the-top, colorful, and add to the "classroom feel" of this production.

Aside from all the goofiness is a heart-swellingly visceral performance lead by Mary Winn Heider, sharing a more serious story by Rachel D. of Graham Elementary School titled, "My Dreams of My Dad Visiting." Rachel's deceased father visits her each night in her dreams, but his message to her is routinely cut off by the sound of her alarm. "And then last Sunday, he got to tell me everything," she writes. "Like, I love you. You're safe. Don't cry." I applaud director Joseph Schupach's visual depiction of this story, as this piece and performance are a testament to the positive results of this program.

According to BOM, "Eighty-seven percent of teachers report that their students' ability to express creativity, feelings and imagination improve through the course of the residency." These students are not only becoming more confident writers and thinkers, they're experiencing the powers of healthy self-expression.

"That's Weird, Grandma: The Holiday Special" runs through Dec. 28 at The Neo-Futurist Theater, 5153 N. Ashland in Chicago. For tickets and information, call 312-409-1954 or visit