It is a long, hot afternoon of waiting in Douglas Park, on the city's West Side. The Soul Children of Chicago, Walt Whitman's long-running, mostly gospel powerhouse choir, is on the bill at a Dwyane Wade foundation charity event, but the concert started at 4 p.m., and by 5:30 the group's members are still milling about on the grass behind the stage.
Also waiting is the headlining act, Mindless Behavior, a hip-hop boy band of the moment, the members of which are hidden in big Cadillac Escalades parked to the right side of the stage. Every cracked window or slightly opened door brings screams from the teen and pre-teen girls for whom these big black vehicles are the event's real stage.
And a few members of the Soul Children — who are, after all, kids ranging from about 8 to 18 — take advantage of their backstage location to walk up and try to peer into the SUV windows.
Big mistake, when you sing in a choir run by Whitman.
He pulls the whole group, more than 40 strong for this performance, together on a little hill, and, with the gusto of a man who grew up as an Air Force brat and has run a kids choir for three decades, demands that they cut. It. Out.
"Y'all are professionals!" he reminds them. "You are an artist. Act like one."
Stepping up the choir's level is what Whitman is trying to achieve these days. It would seem hard to do for a group that has sung at President Barack Obama's second inauguration festivities (at the request of the First Lady), backed Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and regularly tours Europe.
Wednesday, Soul Children is scheduled to be featured in the third episode of "The Queen Latifah Show" (2 p.m., WBBM-Ch. 2); Latifah surprised the kids at a rehearsal over the summer and then flew the group out to perform with her at the Hollywood Bowl. There's also a new DVD out, "Soul Stories!," which dramatizes real-life situations from the lives of some of the choir members trying to stay on the straight and narrow. Their big 32d anniversary concert, "Break the Chains," comes Oct. 26 at the Holy Temple Cathedral in Harvey.
But Whitman wants more. The members of Soul Children can electrify the crowd in a shopping mall mega-church, as they did at the heavily religious International Faith Conference in Forest Park last Thursday. They can hold the stage in a pop setting with a Queen Latifah or Mindless Behavior, and they can do even more to the stage itself: When the group finally got to sing in Douglas Park two Saturdays ago, jumping with the enthusiasm and the spirit that Whitman insists the kids bring to performances, officials from the event were seen peeking under the bunting to make sure Soul Children weren't going to, literally, bring the house down.
And the group has won over hardened critics. "It isn't often that the opening act tops the main attraction, but it surely did Monday night in Orchestra Hall," the Tribune's Howard Reich wrote in 1999 about a Martin Luther King Jr. birthday concert featuring the choir and superstars Sounds of Blackness. "If there is a more technically disciplined, emotionally committed and musically dynamic young people's chorus in the United States, this listener has not encountered it."
Whitman, who's got the energy in person that the poems of his namesake have on the page, wants Soul Children to be the headliners rather than the opening act or the backing gospel choir.
He wants them to have not their day in the sun — because the group has certainly had many of those since it grew out of the choir at a South Side Catholic school where Whitman taught — but more days in a brighter sun.
Three scenes from Soul Children's summer show the group trying to achieve that.
A visit from the Queen
The kids, gathered in the cathedral space at the Olive Branch Mission in the West Englewood neighborhood, where they rehearse every Thursday and Saturday, know something is up. Someone is coming on this early July day. To explain the cameras, they've been told a documentary crew is shooting them. And they've been warned to clear their calendars for the tail end of the next week, which, in all likelikhood, means an out-of-town performance. They're just not sure where. Or who. Or what.
And then, as Whitman puts them through their paces, Queen Latifah walks in. "I just happened to be strolling through the 'hood at 63d and Claremont," she says.
"She walked in the door, mid-song," Kyana Nunnally,18, a 10-year choir member from Lansing, recalls later. "I was, like, 'Oh my God, it's really her.' I had to get closer to be sure."
They're practicing Stevie Wonder's "As," and Whitman, in the middle of the song, throws out an improvised: "Queen Latifah, we will always love you." The choir executes it flawlessly. "The spontaneity is the piece that excites the audience," Whitman says afterward. "The energy is spontaneous, but the choir rehearses it. Everything is calculated so even the looseness is prepared."
"You all sound crazy good," Latifah tells the group. "What is the name of this choir? Soul Children of Chicago? You ain't lyin'. You ain't lyin'."
She asks who does "the best Mr. Whitman impersonation," and a boy named J.J. steps up: "When I say move, you move," he barks, and his peers can't quite stifle laughter, "or you won't sing in this life or the next one, either."