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'Crime Scene' Puts How Chicagoans View Violence Up To The Looking Glass

By Mark Konkol | February 18, 2013 9:07am | Updated on February 18, 2013 10:42am

Let me tell you what it’s like to be a reporter on the street covering murder and mayhem in Chicago.

When a kid gets shot, reporters like me rush to the crime scene to fill notebooks with details of blood-stained sidewalks, bullet-riddled car doors and witness accounts of the “bang, bang, bang” that woke the neighborhood and took lives.

We knock on the front door of a victim’s family, invite ourselves inside and ask a grieving mother to describe her pain while her face is wet with tears.

We piece together the details to craft a story that we hope is as close to the truth as anyone can get.

Later, we follow up with police and attend bond court hearings to see the accused suspect’s reaction as prosecutors detail evidence that will be used against them.

While most people skim the details or get highlights from the evening news, a faithful contingent of people post comments at the end of online stories — a mix of empathy, cynicism and insensitive racist rants — for the world to see.

Reporters read those, too, because some tragedies are impossible to let go of.

And when nobody is listening, we argue with each other about whether certain crimes get more coverage because the victim is white, or if another gang-related death on the South Side or West Side is worth reporting at all.

For some of us, all those details scribbled in so many notebooks get burned into our memory and harden us. We can’t help but carry them with us — even when we move on to the next one.

And there’s always a next one.

No matter how you closely you guard your heart, it’s impossible to forget what it’s like to look into a father’s eyes as he waits outside a hospital room while his daughter — the girl he used to sing lullabies to at night — fights to stay alive.

I hate that I can’t tell you exactly what it feels like — words don’t do it justice.

Sometimes, you have to see a story to really feel it.

And on Valentine’s Day, I saw a version of my own experiences covering violence unfold at the opening night of "Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology," a play about murder and mayhem in Chicago.

From the back row of a tiny theater in the Flat Iron Building in Wicker Park I watched a scene depicting Liam McShane — the father of Natasha McShane, the Irish girl brutally beaten with a baseball bat in a Bucktown robbery in 2010 — as he pushed his wheelchair-bound daughter and sang, “There’s a brown girl in the ring/ Tra la la la la.”

Tears that never welled when I reported that story two years ago soaked my cheeks.

A few days after Natasha and her friend Stacy Jurich were attacked, I sat across a table from Liam McShane and looked deep into his blue eyes as he sang me that song — the one he sang to his oldest daughter when she was a baby. And the one he sang to her moments after she finally opened her beautiful brown eyes after she came out of her coma.

The way I described it in print was accurate, but I’m not sure it was as powerful as the way it was portrayed on stage. That’s the thing about art — it reflects life, makes it bigger somehow and touches us in a way that journalism sometimes doesn’t.

Director Anthony Moseley and the Collaboraction Theater Company did their own reporting.

They scoured the news reports and reader comments and interviewed people who, like reporters, get so close to the violence that they can’t help carry it with them.

The end result is a gripping tale of the Chicago condition that gets to the heart of our suffering. And it’s especially fitting while the national spotlight shines on our city’s shooting problem.

The play also focuses on two other tragedies: the mistaken-identity murder of 12-year-old Orlando Patterson in 2000 and last year’s drive-by slaying of rising South Side rap star Joseph “Lil Jojo” Coleman. But really, it’s bigger than that.

"Crime Scene" captures the effect violence has on Chicagoans by using our own words — exact quotes from real people found on news sites, social media and blogs — to show us what we look like.

The play opens with the audience kept from their seats by crime scene tape and forced to unwittingly mingle with actors on the stage, a map of Chicago’s street grid marked with neighborhood names. The action starts with actors spouting lines cribbed from comments written at the end of news stories. The lines mimic the familiar, hate-filled back-and-forth that often leads to empty threats and name-calling.

On stage, it ends in a brawl — as those online debates certainly would if they occurred between strangers at a tavern.

And throughout the play, reporters are a silent presence behind yellow crime scene tape. Their faces buried in notebooks, soaking it all in, they get shooed away by police.

Lil Jojo’s murder is told in gripping detail — some of it ripped from stories I worked on with reporters Kim Janssen and Frank Main. But it’s a line that did not get reported by the mainstream media that is especially telling.

Standing over the dead rapper’s body, an actor reads a line — it’s a plea Lil Jojo’s sister posted on a blog — that demands everyone just shut up and stop talking about stuff we don’t know about.

All I could think is: That’s exactly what we shouldn’t do.

Collaboraction Theater's "Crime Scene" puts up a looking glass so we can see ourselves — victims, shooters, pastors, gang members, children, parents, neighbors, criminals, cops, racists, bleeding-heart liberals, reporters, all of us — the way other people see us in relation to the violence that plagues Chicago.

And it's not pretty. But it's not too late to change.

Actress Victoria Blade's original song, "Let Hope Rise" — a modern folk masterpiece and a prayer for our city — reminds us of that. Hope is always the last thing to die.

In 80 minutes, they captured the essence of the biggest story in town.

When it was done my only complaint was that the tiny theater is just too small — with too few seats — to make the impact that it could.

Somebody should do something about that.