March 15, 2017

Johnny Hicks started his acting career at Kidz Kabaret in Naperville, Illinois, about two years ago. He started out striking sets, but his passion lies in acting. His first speaking part was in School House Rock, where he played Darth Vader. No, Darth Vader is not usually a character in School House Rock, but Kandiss Hernandez, director of the program, wrote him in specifically for Johnny.

“This is a very passionate, energetic kid who happens to have autism and is deaf in both ears,”

says Hernandez. Johnny wanted to play Darth Vader, so she added a coffee commercial starring Darth Vader to the production.

Johnny’s next role was Augustus Gloop in Willie Wonka. Hernandez cast her daughter, Megan, as Gloop’s mother so she would be nearby in order to offer support.

“She understood what she needed to do when she guided Johnny, and that audience was blown away by his performance, because when he knew what to sing, his one line was ‘I eat more,’ he sang it with such complete strength and passion.”

The next production Johnny starred in was Beauty and the Beast. When Johnny requested the part of the Beast, Hernandez was hesitant at first. Johnny still required a great deal of support from the other cast members, and taking on the lead role required a lot of work. She says,

“Now the way he could be successful with this was for me to pad the show with my senior kids.”

They guided him and helped him to remember his lines and his exits. Hernandez also supported him offstage, staying as close as possible to Johnny while he was performing. She adds,

“You can’t understand a lot of what Johnny says, so the characters on stage would have to maybe repeat what he said in a way, through their character.”

Casie Coleman, who played Belle, says

“Beast was closed up, and he didn’t have, like, a place that was his home. “He opened up to Belle, and I feel like Johnny relates to that because he opened up to Kidz Kab, and he’s home here, and we all love him so much.”

Hernandez, who also has a son with Asperger’s syndrome says,

“When people ask me and say to me, well, you just changed that young man’s life, I think I did, in a way. I think Johnny changed ours much more,”

Kidz Kabaret has a no-audition policy that welcomes all children and teens to their program, regardless of their abilities or special needs. Their mission is to put “Every Child Center Stage,” and to give all children a chance to showcase their talents. Christine Yesutis, whose daughter , Ali, is rehearsing for her second play, says,

“I’m just so thrilled that she’s found something that she loves to do and a place where she’s accepted completely for who she is.”

For more information about Kidz Kabaret, and for a schedule of upcoming shows, see their website at

About the author 

Laurel Joss

Laurel Joss is a freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. She worked as an RDI® Program Certified Consultant and has published articles in Autism Spectrum Quarterly and on her blog She is a mother to two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. You can also follow her on and

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