Columbinus at The Chicago Academy for the Arts

Jacob Flores

Jacob Flores

Jacob Flores said he’s never had a more challenging role than the one he’s about to play as part of The Chicago Academy for the Arts’ rendition of Columbinus.

The Academy junior will play a character named Freak, who later becomes Eric Harris, one of the school shooters at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999.

“I realize that this is not like other roles that I’ve played in the sense that it’s more complex,” said Flores, of Chicago’s Midway neighborhood. “But it’s a challenge and a welcome challenge. I’m excited in a way because I think it’s such a good story to be doing at this time because it’s so relevant to events that are happening now more than ever.”

Columbinus will run at The Academy, 1010 W. Chicago Ave., from March 23-25. Students learned from Theatre Chair Ben Dicke in December that this year’s spring play would be Columbinus. Auditions took place in January, with rehearsals beginning later that month.

Dicke, of Albany Park, said the school’s choice to perform the play is proof of its “commitment to professional preparation and doing work that actually matters.”

“We know that sheltering students from the realities of the human experience will rarely prepare them for what lies beyond adolescence,” Dicke said. “Sadly, we know when we chose this play last fall that it was going to be relevant to current events in some way. Since the tragedy at Columbine 19 years ago — before any of our current Theatre students were born — school shootings have continued to be a uniquely American issue. This play looks at a number of issues prevalent in American schools, like bullying, mental health, and social isolation, and adds perspective to the ongoing national debate about the gun legislation. The shootings in Parkland a couple of weeks ago, as well as those in Marshall County, Kentucky, gave us pause on whether to move forward with the production. But we ultimately decided that those events, and so many similar tragedies since Columbine, are the reasons why we must do this play now.”

Ben Dicke, Theatre Department Chair

Ben Dicke, Theatre Department Chair

Jason Patera, The Academy’s Head of School, said that Academy students regularly engage in challenging work. “Art matters.” he says, “It has the power to inspire, to unify, to broaden perspective, to heal, to give voice, to mobilize, and to bring joy, and this play — particularly because our actors are high school students — is a critical contribution to the national dialogue.”

For Flores, the play’s topic has an extra level of interest as his mother is a teacher and his father serves as a police officer. But Flores said, as an actor, his job is to “take on these roles, whether it’s good or bad.”

“We’re not supposed to discriminate who we play because it’s telling a story that’s deserving to be heard,” Flores said. “Having this play is a very essential part of what The Academy is. Most schools wouldn’t even think about taking on this type of play because it’s so controversial, but I think that being in an environment where it’s allowed is important. As artists, we’re supposed to educate in a way and inform people through our art. This is a story that needs to be heard because it offers so much perspective.”

Academy trustee and Theatre Department parent Emily Barr was confident in the Academy students' ability to handle the material. "When we learned the Theatre Department would be producing Columbinus, we were confident it would be done with great care and sensitivity. More importantly, it would give these young artists the chance to confront and attempt to understand a very tragic and disturbing trend. Our daughter, Ali, is now a senior at The Academy, and when we watch her rehearse and perform, we see a maturity and dedication to her craft that belies her age. As a parent and a trustee, I am in awe of that level of focus, and I give credit to this wonderful school. I doubt many high school theatre programs would tackle such a challenging production."

Columbinus, written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli for the United States Theatre Project, debuted in 2005. According to its website, the play “weaves together excerpts from discussions with parents, survivors and community leaders in Littleton as well as police evidence to bring to light the dark recesses of American adolescence.” The play received five Helen Hayes Award nominations, including the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play.

Through mid-February, there have been 18 school shootings in the United States.

For more information on The Academy’s presentation of Columbinus, visit