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Chicago's Youth Violence Brought to the Stage at Steppenwolf

By Paul Biasco | March 6, 2013 6:29am

LINCOLN PARK — Unexpected gunshots ring out across the audience under a flashing blue-box police camera overlooking a street scene littered with RedEyes and KFC boxes.

Steppenwolf Theater's newest production, "How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence," puts the audience in the heat of Chicago's youth violence and hopes to start a citywide conversation.

The spoken lines during the production are gleaned from 4,000 pages of interviews, court documents, police interview transcripts and medical examiner reports.

The result: an up-close look at the real violence that has occurred across the city.

"For the past two years plus now, my students and I have been running around the city interviewing everyone from kids who are active in gangs to kids who are sort of on the edge of gangs to kids who are trying to stay out of gangs, to parents, to victims, to cops ..." playwright Miles Harvey said. "Just anyone with a direct stake in sort of this bloodbath that's going on in the city."

Following the brutal beating death of 16-year-old Fenger Academy High School student Derrion Albert in 2009, Harvey, a journalist and DePaul University English professor, teamed up with Hallie Gordon, director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults. The work they created will be seen by 8,000 students and will go on the road to eight Chicago Public Libraries.

The performance tells multiple stories of violence through the eyes of gangbangers, church leaders, mothers and former Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones using their own words. But the focus is on the central narrative of Frankie Valencia, a DePaul student who was murdered in 2009.

Valencia, the son of an immigrant father and teenage mother, had big dreams and was an honors student when, at a Halloween party in Humboldt Park in 2009, he was shot by an angry gang member who was denied entrance to the gathering.

At the opening of the production, Valencia's shooter hides a prop of the TEC-9 gun used in the shooting in a newspaper box just off the stage alongside audience members.

Many audience members wiped away tears during a performance Monday night, and for some high school students, a target audience for the producers, the intensity of some scenes were eye-opening.

"I know it was a problem, but I didn't know it was so bad of a problem," said 16-year-old Mabel Frank, a student from Evanston Township High School.

The interactive performance includes projections of a video interview with Valencia, cellphone footage of the Albert beating, and long scrolling lists of the names of the youths murdered in 2012 and 2013, which brought a haunting silence over the theater.

"We want to bring these stories to people who don't think the South and the West and Southwest Side are in the same country, let alone the same city," Harvey said.

Harvey, who teaches oral history storytelling to graduate and undergraduate students, was helped by Kelli Simpkins, one of the creators of "The Laramie Project," a play about the 1998 murder of a gay student in Wyoming.

Simpkins helped turn the thousands of pages of interviews and manuscripts into a working production.

The hope is to use storytelling to make the violence real to an audience that can be desensitized by the stream of news reports.

For Diane Latiker, founder and CEO of Kids Off The Block, whose story is featured in the play, the portrayal of her "world" in the Roseland community is spot on.

"It's the storytelling. If someone is telling a story we become part of the story," she said.

Although Harvey admits he doesn't know the impact the play will have on stopping youth violence, the idea is to try to get a citywide conversation going about the issue.

"The play doesn't have a message. I don't believe that preaching works," he said. "We just try to measure the human cost."

Dan Antman, 17, another student from Evanston Township High School, said the play was a "removal of ignorance" for him.

"It's difficult to have empathy when our situations are so different than this," he said.

Public performances of "How Long Will I Cry?" will be held Saturday and March 18 and 23 in Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., and school performances will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesdays to Fridays through March 23.

The play also will be performed at:

11 a.m. Monday at the Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted St.

5 p.m. Monday at the West Englewood Branch, 1745 W. 63rd St.

11 a.m. Tuesday at the Austin Branch, 5615 W. Race Ave. 

11 a.m. March 13 at the Little Village Branch, 2311 S. Kedzie Ave.

5 p.m. March 13 at the Gary Comer Youth Center, 7200 S. Ingleside Ave.

11 a.m. March 14 at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St.

5 p.m. March 14 at the Whitney Young Branch, 7901 S. King Drive.

11 a.m. March 16 at the Humboldt Park Branch, 1605 N. Troy St.