How Long Will I Cry? at Steppenwolf
A play chronicling youth violence in Chicago debuts at Steppenwolf.
‘When I go out at night, it’s like walking through Baghdad or something. You don’t know when somebody might pop out or shoot at you.”
This harrowing account of a Chicago neighborhood is spoken onstage by an actor in the latest production by Steppenwolf for Young Adults. But it isn’t fiction—it was first spoken by a young West Side resident describing daily life in a city with more youth homicides than any other in America.
The young man is one of several Chicagoans represented in How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence, an interview-based accounting of the city’s epidemic of youth violence. The play, which opens at Steppenwolf Theatre Company February 26 and will subsequently tour Chicago Public Library branches around the city, is compiled by journalist Miles Harvey from a variety of primary sources, including court transcripts, police documents and interviews with about 70 individuals conducted by Harvey and his creative-nonfiction students at DePaul University, where he’s an assistant professor in the English department.
“For the past two years, my students have been going all over the city to interview people directly affected by youth violence,” Harvey says on a gray January day at Steppenwolf, a few hours after President Obama laid out his administration’s plan to address gun violence. “We talked to a lot of kids: kids in gangs, kids on the borderline of gangs and kids out. We talked to victims’ parents, we talked to cops, we talked to funeral-home directors, we talked to the [then] county coroner. Just anyone who’s got a really direct stake in this.”
“Going through some of those [interviews] is devastating,” adds Edward Torres, the production’s director. “We really don’t want to sugarcoat anything.”
The play was born out of conversations between Harvey and his friend Hallie Gordon, the artistic and educational director of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program. “The Derrion Albert murder had happened, and the viral video was out,” Harvey says, recalling the 2009 beating death of the Fenger Academy High School student that was captured on cell-phone video and posted to the Internet, riling the city.
“She said, ‘I have this idea for a piece of documentary theater, à la The Laramie Project, about youth-violence issues in Chicago. But I could never pull that off. We don’t have the resources at Steppenwolf for getting people out to do interviews,’ ” Harvey says. “And I said, ‘I think I could supply the troops for that.’ ”
Harvey teaches oral-history techniques to his graduate and undergraduate classes “because I think it’s a really great way to get students thinking about storytelling,” he says. The youth-violence project offered a real-world application. “For a lot of them, it was a stretch; they were seeing parts of the city they’d never seen before, because we wanted them to go to people’s neighborhoods, not have people come to DePaul for a sit-down in a nice, safe conference room.”
Among the main characters depicted in How Long Will I Cry? are youths from Humboldt Park, Jefferson Park and North Lawndale, along with public figures like Diane Latiker, the founder of the Roseland antiviolence nonprofit Kids Off the Block, and Pastor Corey Brooks of Woodlawn’s New Beginnings Church, who camped out on the roof of an abandoned motel near his church at 66th Street and King Drive over a year ago in an effort to raise money to demolish the motel and build a community center as a safe space for kids in high-crime neighborhoods (see page 14). Brooks provides the play’s title, from the Old Testament Book of Habakkuk: “O Lord, how long will I cry, and you will not hear? I cry out to you ‘Violence!’ and will you not save?”