LAKEVIEW — Richard James Zieman was a bouncer at a club in River North when a young man named Joe captured his attention.
The "striking" 20-something had an angelic face, but in a split second, "he could turn on you with a look of a killer," said Zieman, 60, who worked at Reynolds Aluminum as a product manager before working as a bouncer for fun. Zieman started chatting with him.
He learned that Joe was in a gang and wanted to be a rapper. He learned that to do it, Joe needed money to produce a CD to sell on the street — a cost usually funded by gang leaders.
Joe was not the only one. Many of his friends also needed the money to build their rap CDs, but dependence on gang leaders made it nearly impossible to leave the gang life behind even if the CD sold well, Zieman said.
"It's like the mafia," Zieman said. "You can't get out."
Zieman started spending time with Joe — going as far as to give him some $4,000 to pay for studio time.
His relationship with Joe struck a chord with Zieman, who is also a playwright. Next Friday, the Athenaeum Theatre will debut Zieman's "The Last Hand," a play based on Joe and other young people in gangs with dreams of stardom amid violence in Chicago.
"I don’t think a lot of people know that this is what these kids go through," Zieman said. "The essence of the story is based on true fact."
"The Last Hand" is about a young man named Angel on the West Side who, like Joe, aspires to be a rapper, and his friend Clip, a gang enforcer who must choose between loyalty to the gang and loyalty to Angel.
The play's director, Samuel G. Roberson, teaches young African-American men how to work through violence and family issues via theater and film. He said he was attracted to the play because many of men he works with face the same issues as Angel.
Angel is trying to better himself, but he's doing it a way that's not positive.
"A lot of kids out here want to be superstars or see that as their only viable way out of the system," Roberson said. "They don't know there are other avenues. That's a conversation I'd like to have" with the play.
Zieman ultimately lost track of Joe, who kept asking him for money. When Zieman asked to see the street CD, Joe stopped calling back.
The playwright and former bouncer didn't intend to send a political message through the play. It's more about the story of the friendship between two gang members, with a backdrop of Chicago's violence, he said.
But Roberson plans to bring his students to the play with hopes that they'll start talking about the issues.
"Clip can be more than this thing [gangbanging] that people are putting on him," Roberson said. "That's the lesson to be learned in this play."
"The Last Hand" runs at The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., from Sept. 13 to Oct. 20. Shows are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $25 for adults, $15 for students and seniors.