Chicagoans are no strangers to headlines about the city’s explosive murder rate. Most of us are familiar with the names of Derrion Albert and Hadiya Pendleton, two of the more high-profile cases of lives cut short too early by violence. And yet, despite the headlines and statistics, most of us fail to understand the scope of a problem that often seems to happen in someone else’s neighborhood. Steppenwolf Theater’s How Long Will I Cry? takes the audience out of its comfort zone and into the complex world of youth violence on the streets of Chicago.
Written by Miles Harvey and directed by Edward Torres, How Long Will I Cry? is part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults series. The production grew out of a project from journalist, playwright and professor Miles Harvey and his DePaul University undergraduate and graduate students based on interviews with people all over Chicago whose lives have been changed by youth violence. The play is ambitious in its efforts to collect a variety of perspectives based on interviews done by the DePaul students in Miles Harvey’s class. We hear from victims and perpetrators, innocent bystanders and saviors, parents, pastors, and medical personnel.
The acting in this production is solid across the board. Each actor plays more than one role—the roles here are the real people whose interviews make up the play. The narrative is given structure by Miles Harvey, played by Mark Ulrich, who describes his own journey to try to understand the complex causes of youth violence and periodically interjects to remind the audience of which character is speaking. At times, this structure can be a bit awkward, but it does allow for connections to be made between many different characters without a strictly linear plot. Gabriel Ruiz is winning and likeable as Frankie Valencia, whose promising future is brutally cut short as we hear during a taped 9-1-1- call that starts off the play. His mother is played by Tara Mallen, who takes the audience through the gut wrenching details of losing a child in a senseless act of violence. J. Salome Martinez, Jr. and Jessie David Perez play the two young men who shot Frankie, showing us glimpses of the fear that lurks beneath their hardened exteriors. The roles of Deshon and Ora are played by Charles Gardner and Shannon Matesky, respectively, whose stories show us the pain and frustration that goes along with growing up in a veritable war zone. Finally, Mark Smith as Pastor Brooks and Celeste Williams as Diane Laitker are examples of people who chose to take action in their neighborhoods rather than wait for help from a public that has largely turned a blind eye to poverty and violence.
For all the work done to show the complex socio-economic causes of violence in Chicago over time through interviews, footage and news items (including one striking article from the 1970’s on the gang problem that shows the city has not come very far in understanding the roots of this epidemic), one critical piece seemed to be missing: the reasons many residents of the most afflicted areas of the city have so little trust in the police to keep them safe and the perspectives of the police officers who investigate these crimes day after day.
The play is staged in the Upstairs Theatre, an intimate space with eight rows of seats on either side of the stage. Though sparse, the scenic design by William Boles is just enough for us to recognize a Chicago street corner, complete with a blue light camera. Two tall, rectangular screens project beautifully edited footage by Michael Fernandez, which is unfortunately a bit difficult to see due to chain link fencing over the screens. The actors, however, make great use of the space.
The play asks the audience to consider how different our response might be if these shootings were taking place not in Englewood and Austin, but in Lakeview and Lincoln Park. But the deeper question it poses is, regardless of the neighborhoods where the shootings occur; shouldn’t putting an end to this violence be the responsibility of all Chicagoans? How Long Will I Cry? shows us that single acts of violence ripple out into communities at large, changing many lives, and changing our city for the worse. The play does not prescribe a solution; instead, its characters show us that we have to be willing to face the problem of youth violence in all its complexity if we are to have any hope of making Chicago safer for all of us.
How Long Will I Cry? is recommended, and playing at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre March 9, 18, and 23, as well as at several Chicago Public Library branches from March 11-16. Tickets for the Upstairs Theatre performances are $20, with a limited number of $15 student tickets, and are currently on sale through Audience Services, 1650 N. Halsted St., by calling 312-335-1650, and at the Steppenwolf website. Tickets to tour performances are free, but reservations are required.
Photos by Michael Brosilow