By Anne Spiselman
Jeffery Owen Freelon, Jr. who opens in The New Colony’s world premiere of “The Light” on Jan. 7, has lived in Hyde Park most of his life and says that the neighborhood has helped make him the person—and actor–he is today.
Born on the North Side, the 26 year old moved as a baby with his family to an apartment at 53rd Street and Ellis Avenue and lived there until he was 5 or 6, when his mother bought a “big old house” at 46th Street and Greenwood Avenue that she renovated. He left home only in 2009 to study acting at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and returned in 2013 right after he graduated.
“I love the diversity of culture in Hyde Park,” Freelon said. “It’s not segregated, so you can see people hanging out together who wouldn’t normally. When I was a kid, I’d go out to see the world on my skateboard and might randomly come across an art festival in one place, a Caribbean celebration in another, and lots more. These experiences shaped how I see the world and approach my roles by looking at the human side of the characters.”
While Freelon said his mother had him performing Bible scenes at Grant Memorial AME Church in Bronzeville as soon as he could speak, he got seriously interested in theater in fourth grade at Harvard St. George, a private school at 4810 S. Ellis Avenue that closed in 2003. “We were reading ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ in class and for some reason the teacher picked me to play Walter Lee Younger,” he recalls. “Then she decided we should do a production. My mom got wind of it and made sure I knew my lines, the blocking, the emotions. When I got on stage and saw how I was communicating with the audience, I had a real sense of power and responsibility for the first time.”
Freelon admits, though, that he still didn’t think of acting as a profession and preferred playing outside or video games. He didn’t audition for any plays his first year at St. Thomas the Apostle School, but the second year, his homeroom teacher pushed him to try out for “Macbeth”–and he got the title role. “It was so great. I learned that Shakespeare wasn’t as hard as I’d thought and could be fun.”
High school was different. Freelon didn’t like De La Salle Institute in Bronzeville and didn’t participate in theater there. But his older sister, Kiratiana, took it upon herself to get him an application for the Lookingglass Young Ensemble. He auditioned, got in, and was part of the Lookingglass Theatre Company program, where he still helps out, from his freshman through senior years.
“That’s where I really cultivated my art before going to college,” he said. “We did lots of plays, and I learned how to let the words be the drama and to do physical acting.”
He added that he also took part in the University of Chicago summer theater camp in 2007 and 2008, which was similar in style.
At the University of Michigan, Freelon said getting the lead role of John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” really kicked him into shape.
“The director Jerry Schwiebert, who was also my mentor, made us rehearse outside of school as well as in,” he explained. “It was almost like a real actor’s life.”
Besides being involved in theater throughout college, he also took part in student films including starring in “Zug,” a 2012 coming-of-age short set in Detroit that won multiple awards.
Since returning to Chicago, Freelon has performed with a number of companies, among them Adventure Stage Chicago, Theatre Unspeakable, and Victory Gardens Theater. He understudied the role of Kitch in “Pass Over” at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and appeared on the television show “Chicago PD.” As a New Colony ensemble member, he has been in several productions and said that playing Karl in the 2016 world premiere of “Byhalia, Mississippi,” a coproduction with Definition Theatre Company, is what “put him on the map” in terms of recognition and getting auditions.
Although Freelon said 2017 was a great year because he was able to support himself on theater alone for half of it, like most young actors, he’s also had other jobs. One of his favorites was as a facilitator for the U-505 Submarine exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, which he only left when he signed on with Paonessa Talent Agency and had to be available for daytime auditions. “It was so much fun and almost like an acting job,” he said. “I’d take people onto the boat and give a memorized speech to the accompaniment of sound effects. The U-boat was like a movie.”
Freelon’s preferred Hyde Park hangout these days is The Promontory at 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue “I always thought the neighborhood needed a place like that,” he said. “And I really enjoy the live music.”
The cultural landmark he misses most is the graffiti “permission” wall that was in the alley behind 1300 E. 53rd Street until it was torn down in 2014. “It had a lot of beautiful art that’s gone now,” he said sadly.
After “The Light” closes, Freelon, who has been in a few advertisements, is contemplating taking a break from the stage to pursue more commercial work. He has a steady job at Piece Brewery and Pizzeria in Wicker Park and is moving north to be nearer to it. “As an actor, I have to be willing to go new places,” he said. “But Hyde Park always will be home.”
“The Light” Loy Webb’s romantic drama, continues through Feb. 4, at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets ($20) are available at www.thenewcolony.org.