Joe Mazza

From Chatham to Wonderland

Fifteen year-old Ariana Burks is a rising star in Chicago

The cast of Wonderland, Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventures energetically circles the stage, chanting, “Curiouser and curiouser.” Suddenly they freeze, and a small girl plops herself down center stage, chess pieces in hand and trademark blue dress secured tightly with a white apron. Of course, this is Alice, played by dynamic fifteen-year-old South-Sider Ariana Burks. Delivering her first lines with the appropriate childish melodrama, Burks proclaims loudly, “I now crown you Queen Alice, Queen of Everything!” The audience, mostly children, laughs. Alice then declares that dessert shall be eaten before dinner, and that she shall always be picked first for every team.

Burks made her debut in Chicago Children’s Theatre’s performance of Wonderland this week as Chicago’s first African-American Alice. The hilariously fun musical is based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with some important additions: shred guitar, pounding drums, and pure, unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll. Because the cast also plays the instruments and sings the songs, Burks had to learn entire numbers on the piano while practicing her voice and drum solos.

All that practice and Burks’s acting skills were on display at a final run-through of the show on Tuesday. Director Rachel Rockwell describes Burks as emotionally accessible.

“You know exactly how she’s feeling at every moment,” Rockwell said in an email, and indeed, Burks is subtle and nuanced as an actress, magnificently navigating a British accent and a seven-and-a-half year-old character. Her acting, which is earnest, funny, and explosive, is also understated—she effectively conveys her character through a slight slouch and a childish pout rather than exaggerated gesture. As the cast struggled with last-minute technical challenges, Burks remained poised. It was only when the show paused to deal with a prop malfunction that Burks revealed how immersed she’d been throughout the show as her face abruptly gained maturity—she suddenly looked fifteen instead of half that age.

Although Burks says she identifies with Alice and her impatience to grow up, she herself is mature and articulate. She is also very determined to make her mark on the theater world. Burks, who has dreams of playing Elphaba in Wicked, Christine in Phantom of the Opera, Aida in Aida, and Sarah in Ragtime, is currently working toward her goals at ChiArts High School, where she majors in Musical Theater. Her mom, Elise Burks, stresses how lucky her daughter is to have been so successful in the pursuit of her dreams. According to Ms. Burks, “musical theater is just not widely popular on the South Side. There’s not that many kids who know about auditions or even think about being on Broadway.”

Burks is from Chatham, where according to Ms. Burks, “everyone wants to be famous,” but not many people look to the stage. Burks has thrived while pursuing her passion—she is an Emmy-nominated actress and a member of Lookingglass Theatre’s youth ensemble, with credits at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Goodman Theatre, and Redmoon Theater (among others). Burks has television credits too, on Chicago Fire, The Jr. Cuisine Cooking Show (Emmy nominee), ER, and PrankStars.

Despite her daughter’s talent, Ms. Burks says she found out the hard way that certain roles were out of reach for her children (Burks’s sister is an aspiring actress as well).

“There were roles they wouldn’t even get the chance to audition for, just because they were black,” Ms. Burks explains. She describes the discouraging nature of these situations, especially in the tight-knit community of Chicago’s younger actors. Burks would often see children she knew get called in to audition for classic shows like Mary Poppins, Matilda, and The Sound of Music, while she was never afforded the chance.

Understandably, when Burks landed the role of Alice her family was shocked. “When you say Alice from Alice in Wonderland, we all sort of have an idea of what she’s supposed to look like,” Ms. Burks explains, “and we don’t see her being a black girl with curly hair.” Burks concurs. “I worked hard in the audition,” she says. “But I never thought I’d get this role, and when I did it was very surprising… In all of the adaptions of Alice I’ve seen, she doesn’t look like me.”

Burks elaborates, saying, “To play this role—it’s a triumph, because I think that color-blind casting is growing, and I think people are starting to see that Alice can be any race.” In the past few years, Broadway has undergone major transformations in demographic. African-American actors like Norm Lewis and Keke Palmer have made their marks on the Broadway stage in traditionally Caucasian roles—they played the titular characters in Phantom of the Opera and Cinderella, respectively.

Burks, who modestly cites Wonderland’s cast, her mom and sister, and Audra McDonald as role models, is surely an inspiration to the young people that will flock to see her as Alice. After all, Wonderland is about being comfortable in your own skin, and Burks admits, “A lot of the lessons in the show apply to me. Like if you conform to society, you end up being like everyone else, and that’s not what Alice wants. She wants to be her own person.”

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