Diondre Dunigan is a 17-year-old teen from the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the city’s Southside. This week, the talented singer will share the stage with Red Jacket Optional, a high-caliber broadcast production featuring two-time Grammy award-winning artist Kurt Elling, Chicago native singer-songwriter Natalie Bergman, Eurovision’s Vasil Garvanliev, and acclaimed opera singer Jonathan Green. The concert will occur at The Geraghty (2520 S. Hoyne Ave.) on October 16, 2021, with the free Livestream starting at 8:30 p.m. During the event, Chicago Children’s Choir ensembles will captivate audiences with a powerful set that includes a range of musical styles and numbers, including the world premiere of the original composition “Still Here,” by the Choir’s composer-in-residence W. Mitchell Owens III.
This year’s lively event celebrates the Choir’s 65th anniversary and invites audiences to “Imagine” a more harmonious world.
“We’re ready to show the world what unity looks like,” Josephine Lee, President of Chicago Children’s Choir, said. “This year’s gala is much more than just a fundraiser. The 2021 Red Jacket Optional is an invitation for all of Chicago to join some of the city’s most vibrant, talented youth to imagine a future in which our world, healed by the transformational power of music, thrives in harmony.”
Diondre is an artist who has overcome hardships, including battling COVID and financial challenges caused by the pandemic. Strong and resilient, none of these obstacles discouraged him or his passion for music. The Red Jack Optional production is his first return to in-person performances with the Chicago Children’s Choir.
Chicago Defender: How did you become interested in music?
Diondre Dunigan: My music journey started as young as I can remember. I have memories of going into the living room with my mom while she was working out or cleaning. She would have Beyonce or Michael Jackson on the TV, and I would dance around the house and sing. I would sing all the songs. I knew at a young age that that’s kind of what I wanted to do. In school, I also joined the band, where I played the flute for nine years. I joined the Chicago Children’s Choir in third grade and have been singing with them ever since
Chicago Defender: How did you deal with the pandemic and the loss of not being able to be on stage?
Diondre Dunigan: It was hard to deal with as an artist, but I love how the Choir dealt with the pandemic because they pretty much didn’t miss a beat. Immediately about a week after we went into quarantine, we received video projects where we would record ourselves singing. We would send it in and have them edited together to make a virtual choir. So technically, we weren’t performing on stage, but we were still finding ways to make music and art.
Chicago Defender: You are 17; life is full of college applications and school obligations. How do you balance it all with your art?
Diondre Dunigan: Schedule blocking is my best friend. My calendar app is always open. It really takes passion. Creating art is something that I believe I was born to do and feel I was put on earth to do. It’s pretty easy to find time for something that you’re passionate about. Whether squeezing it in after homework or going to a practice room after school to work on my music, to rearranging hangout time with friends to make time for rehearsal, I believe you find ways to do what you love, no matter what’s going on in the world.
Chicago Defender: Much is said about the Auburn Gresham community; most of it is negative, especially when talking about teens and young adults. How does it feel to represent your community in such a positive way?
Diondre Dunigan: It feels great. Honestly, I think about that a lot. I used to be self-conscious about telling people I was from Auburn Gresham. Today, I go to a school with many different people from different neighborhoods. You don’t hear of many kids from where I’m from going to schools like the one I go to. I feel there is so much potential in neighborhoods like mine. It seems unfair to have a negative image of an entire neighborhood with kids who are still trying to figure out their lives. Like me, teens here have hope, passions, and dreams. I hope that being myself, putting myself on stage, speaking, and being a voice can clear up some of that negativity and misconceptions about my community. I want everyone to see people from Auburn Gresham and know we are people just like you.
Chicago Defender: How does it feel to be a part of “Red Jacket Optional” this year?
Diondre Dunigan: The Chicago Children’s Choir does this every year. It’s a celebration of our humanity and our connections. This will be my fourth “Red Jacket Optional.” It’s special because it’s my final one, so I’m definitely excited.
Chicago Defender: What does the future hold?
Diondre Dunigan: I’m in the middle of college applications. I plan to double major in music performance and something STEM-related, like computer science, math, or physics. I really enjoy both, but music will be a part of my life forever.
Red Jacket Optional 2021 will honor local philanthropic leaders Mridu & Chandra Sekhar for their long-term service and dedication to embodying Chicago Children’s Choir values in their work across Chicago. “There really isn’t anything quite like this on the Chicago social calendar,” Red Jacket Optional Co-Chair and Chicago Children’s Choir Board member Monica Carney said. “As a Chicago Children’s Choir alumna myself, I know firsthand how this experience amplifies the voices of young people and unifies our communities. That’s why we anchor the Choir’s biggest annual fundraiser in an inspiring celebration of the musical excellence that our singers embody every day.”
As one of Chicago’s top galas and highest-netting fundraisers, Red Jacket Optional secures critical funds that deliver empowering music education programs to schools and neighborhoods for young people from every zip code in Chicago—regardless of socioeconomic circumstance. As always, Chicago Children’s Choir is committed to taking all the appropriate health and wellness precautions to ensure a safe environment for its guests. In addition, Chicago Children’s Choir is excited to invite audiences to join the celebration online for those who cannot make it in person.
While the evening’s Livestream will begin at 8:30 p.m., the in-person event will start at 6:00 p.m. with cocktails, followed by an impeccable dinner curated by Guiseppe Tentori for Boka Catering Group, and, of course, will culminate in exhilarating performances by various Chicago Children’s Choir ensembles.
For more information, visit rjo.ccchoir.org.
Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSanders20 and @DanieSandersOfficial.