Can Theater Stop Violence?

April 15, 2013

When violent crime goes up, we usually hear about law enforcement responses. More police on the streets. More jails. Harsher penalties. But Chicago, and other cities around the world, is also trying an unlikely cure for violence: theater.

Steppenwolf for Young Adults just ended its first run of How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence. It’s one of several local theater productions exploring the city’s epidemic violence. The docudrama tells the true stories of several Chicagoans–victims, offenders, health professionals, and more–affected by gangs and gun violence. Following the example of other “theater therapy” responses to trauma, its producers hope to soften Chicagoans’ hardened hearts.

There is a kind of violence burnout in Chicago–apathy ensuing from near-constant news of shootings. Consider this excerpt from a typical crime blotter story, “Uptown Shooting Leaves Reputed Gang Member Wounded”:

“A reputed gang member was shot three times Thursday evening by an unidentified gunman who allegedly chased him down Wilson Avenue before fleeing in a white sedan, police said. The 24-year-old victim, identified by officers and neighbors as an area gang member, ran into a liquor store in the 1200 block of West Wilson Avenue.”

A young man is shot three times, and we learn little more than that he is a gang member. At worst, the article elicits fear. At best, it stirs pity. Neither state of being spurs action.

To overcome the apathy, the production enlisted Steppenwolf’s young adults program and partnered with the Chicago Public Library as part of a broader anti-violence initiative called “Now Is the Time.”  The play’s writer, DePaul Professor Miles Harvey, assembled hundreds of interviews with Chicagoans affected by the violence, conducted by himself and his students. The effort was modeled after the Laramie Project, a docu-theater production that used hundreds of community to process the horrific, hate crime murder of Matthew Shephard. How Long Will I Cry? Director Edward Torres aimed this approach at “making sure the stories being told are honest and direct and hopefully will affect people—get people to really listen.”

Those who do listen will hear young people in pain. Remembering play, I can’t remember who was in a gang and who was not. Which is funny,  since the newspaper makes that distinction seem all-important. I do remember that each young person spoke longingly about family, friendship, security and purpose. Gangs prey upon that natural thirst. And by the time kids see they’ve been duped, there is no exit.

The play also depicts other community responses to the violence. Ten years ago, Kids Off the Block founder Diane Latiker began hosting countless local children in her Roseland home, offering a kind of one-woman Boys and Girls Club. But she offered a different kind of compassion when she agreed to talk with Harvey, a middle-aged white man whose intentions many community members doubted. Another woman formed Chicago Citizens for Change, which unites Chicago families touched by violence, after her son was shot to death.

These are remarkable individual social justice efforts. And of course, there are the traditional, law and order responses.  But what about theater? Can a fine art patronized predominantly by Chicago’s cultural and economic elite connect with the city’s poor and disaffected?

This is a youtube, small screen world where messages spread the fastest wen they can be copied and shared instantaneously. Theatre, which the New Yorker recently characterized as “the spotted owl of American art,” struggles to draw its go-to affluent audience, let alone distracted youth who most need to hear the message.

Yet, other cities besides Chicago are “acting out” crime problems. In India, where a justice system that routinely overlooks violent rape has drawn international attention, theater is taking social justice the streets.

The Indian Express reports:

“Days after a young mother said she was gang-raped on the outskirts of Delhi, a theater group took up the issue in a performance in the area where the attack took place.

“We know it, we read it, we understand it, but we don’t react against it (rape),” screamed Shilpi Marwaha, the play’s narrator, at the top of her voice. She went on to list facts and figures on attacks on women from the previous year, her performance so intense that sweat rose on her face as her audience listened intently.”

The stage–whether on a sidewalk or in vaulted auditorium–offers a safe place to play out our darkest struggles. And in a densely populated area, thousands of murders, rapes, and shootings are not isolated events. It’s not hard to see the therapeutic value of neighbors each other’s stories.

Scholars of theater therapy think that public performance is only half the equation. Healing also depends upon dialogues. Communities recovering from natural disasters, wars, and genocides have combined theater with other forms of conflict resolution, like peace circles and mediation. Chicago is hoping that a city-wide violence reduction initiative called Now Is the Time will become the platform to engage as many Chicagoans as possible.

How Long Will I Cry?, the first Now Is The Time production, was geared toward a youth audience and performed for free at Chicago Public Library branches around the city. Many city and suburban high schools took at-risk youth to performances. But where theater performances as youth violence intervention have been shown to reduce teen aggression and violent behavior, the at-risk kids participate in the theater, rather than just watch. They produce, write, and perform the theater–and they tend to be young (when “peers assume an increasingly influential role in youth decision-making”). No empirical evidence suggests that passive viewing alone impacts teenagers.

Following the performance I attended, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who authored Gang Leader For a Day and is highly regarded for related work, offered his view on how theater affects change. By sharing stories, Venkatesh said, people from vastly different worlds can begin to form common ground. In the midst of such hopeless violence, it it’s easy to get stuck in apathy, pity, and outrage. But storytelling can build the bridge toward more productive courses of action–empowerment, entrepreneurship, community-building.

Where policing falls short, storytelling can step in. And with that shift, the community may be able to focus on hope and healing rather than fear and retribution.


Katy Welter is a Chicago-based policy analyst with a focus on urban crime and justice systems. She holds law and public policy degrees from the University of Chicago and was named a 2012 Next City Vanguard member. Follow her on Twitter: @rosporkad 

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