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Theater as Therapy: South Side Youths See Lives Reflected in New Play

 Brandon Lewis (l.) plays an older brother with seven siblings. He has to help take care of them while his father is in prison.
Brandon Lewis (l.) plays an older brother with seven siblings. He has to help take care of them while his father is in prison.
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DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson

BRONZEVILLE — In "Broken Windows 2," Englewood resident Brandon Lewis plays the eldest of seven siblings who has to step up and care for his family while his father is incarcerated.

It's a tough role — both on stage and in real life; that's because the script reflects Lewis' reality.

"It was me coming on the stage, telling my story,” said Lewis, 23, explaining how he used to get up early to feed his younger sister and iron his brother’s clothes because his mother had to catch the bus to work.

"Broken Windows 2," a musical/dance production debuting at the Harold Washington Cultural Center this weekend, centers around a 7-year-old boy named Tyler being raised by his grandmother, and touches on topics such as promiscuity, homosexuality and violence.

 Cassandra Bell (l.) and Geori McCoy (r.) star in
Cassandra Bell (l.) and Geori McCoy (r.) star in "Broken Windows 2" Saturday and Sunday at the Harold Washington Cultural Center.
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DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson

“He’s in the streets, he’s gangbanging, he’s doing everything he’s not supposed to do,” said Cassandra Bell, founder of the group putting on the production. “Tyler at the end has to make a decision about how he’s going to go forward in his life, because at this point, it’s a matter of life and death.”

But beyond telling a powerful story, the production has a second benefit — the program gives young people the chance to express themselves artistically and cope with home issues, trauma and violence.

Bell, a Cook County Juvenile Detention Center delinquency specialist, launched the arts program Save Me 2 Live Foundation in 2009. She holds casting calls at the Harold Washington Cultural Center for stage plays she writes and directs. Through word of mouth, young people from nearby neighborhoods come audition.

She never turns anyone away.

Bell said the idea came to her while working at the juvenile detention center: She would watch the residents quote complete lines from movies with ease, and thought they'd enjoy trying role-playing and acting.

“I started seeing how the art really helped them express how they were feeling,” Bell said.

The program's success led her to expand the concept to more of the community. With the difficulties that youths face in neighborhoods where unemployment is high and violence has become rampant, Bell wanted to bring the issues to light while also uplifting young people.

It's working. Lewis, who is also directing "Broken Windows 2," said the program has been a great opportunity and a "safe haven" for him.

Though he said he's always been creative, he didn’t get any real stage experience until he joined Bell’s team at age 15. He said he's become more driven since getting involved in productions.

Now he’s trying to learn everything he can about acting and directing, he said. His skills have already landed him a role on an episode of last season’s "Chicago Fire."

Lindblom student Geori McCoy, 16, who had prior acting experience before being recruited by Bell, said her character sends a strong message to young women.

“I play Keisha and she’s the fast little girl,” said Geori, of Auburn Gresham. “She doesn't know everything, but thinks she knows everything.”

In the play, Keisha is told by an older woman that her body is special and she shouldn’t give it up. Geori said the message should resonate with female audience members her age.

“I feel like people my age feel as though we have to give that up to be accepted,” she said.

Bell wants to continue putting on plays for children, teens and young adults.

“Ultimately, I want them to come back and do it, and run it, because I’m not going to be here forever,” she said.

Tickets to the shows are on sale via Eventbrite. Performances will be 6-9 p.m. Saturday and 4-8 p.m. Sunday at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. King Drive.

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