Chicago Youth Theater Refuses To Be Silenced
Teens in Chicago are overcoming censorship to share their perspectives on the city’s social issues.
“Make sure you are in contact with someone, even if it’s a pinky finger,” performance artist Ricardo Gamboa tells a group of teenage actors rehearsing at Free Street Theater in Chicago one frigid Saturday afternoon in January. The actors move into a new formation, rearranging themselves to create a more dramatic tableau.
Then the members of the Young Fugitives ensemble launch into the rapid-fire bursts of dialogue — based on their personal experiences and impressions — that make up the backbone of “Cold Summer,” their current production.
They’re exploring issues like gun violence, failing schools, segregation and poverty — concerns that have been studied and talked to death by the nation’s top academics and policy-makers. But their voices impart a perspective that is poetic, confounding, discomfiting, revealing and inspiring all at once.
And that perspective needs to be heard, Gamboa says. An accomplished performance artist pursuing a doctorate at New York University and working at a Brooklyn theater company, Gamboa frequently returns to his native Chicago to work with these young actors, whom he sees as being on the cutting edge of genuine social change.
In fact, the very staging of this particular play is an act of empowerment and resistance.
For several years, Gamboa has been producing plays with young Chicagoans as part of After School Matters, a citywide program that pays students to participate in a variety of creative endeavors. Last summer, Gamboa led program participants at Chicago’s National Mexican Museum in crafting their own script based on the messages and narratives they wanted to convey. The resulting production included a segment about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his highly controversial move to close almost 50 public schools last year, predominantly in poor African-American neighborhoods.
One day, as Gamboa recounts it, a representative from After School Matters happened to come by rehearsal. Afterwards, Gamboa says he was told that the negative portrayal of Emanuel and the school closings had to go. The students decided to perform the play for After School Matters without the flagged material, so as to not jeopardize Gamboa’s future work with the program. However, the actors tell In These Times, they would not be silenced.
That summer, they staged the original version of the play with Free Street Theater, an independent social justice-minded company based at a park district field house in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. There was an overflow crowd, so they did a second performance. Then they decided to take it a step further — expanding, rewriting and re-staging the play to be performed the next season.
During the fall and winter, the cast devoted 10 or more hours each week to the production. As the students discussed how Chicago’s pressing issues affected their own lives, Gamboa took copious notes. Later, he helped them turn the lively, freewheeling conversations into a script. Gamboa also added broader context by talking with the actors about how their personal experiences fit in with wide-ranging struggles like immigration and incarceration.
While the students were paid for their time with After School Matters, the restaging of the play has been a purely volunteer effort. The group raised about $700 for bus fare to rehearsals and supplies to build the set; they hope ticket sales will allow them to pay the set designer.
Through their perseverance, says Daniela Perez, 16, in a backstage discussion with fellow cast members Omari Ferrell, Tyran Freeman and Valeria Nava, “We showed how invested in this we are, how much it means to us.”
“We showed teens actually can make a difference,” adds David Dixon, 16.
Julissa Garcia, 18, feels that “Cold Summer” provides a vital point of view for those who may only be familiar with Chicago’s youth culture through violent news stories. One reason the teens decided to re-stage the play, Garcia says, was to “get our voices out there and show us in a positive light — that we’re not just running the streets like adults think we are.”
Eliseo Real, 18, says that forums like “Cold Summer” where youth can truly express themselves are all too rare. Growing up in the low-income immigrant neighborhood of Little Village on Chicago’s West Side, he says, “you just expected to not be heard, to just do simple things so people won’t get mad at you.”
“[Gamboa] started breaking down barriers,” he continues. “We’re not just the voice for the ‘Young Fugitives’ now but for every kid. So we have a big responsibility.”
And the actors take that responsibility very seriously. They don’t just want to raise awareness about Chicago’s problems, they say; they want to challenge viewers to confront the system that produces them in the first place.
“Violence isn’t just about the individual; it’s about the segregation of the city, and gentrification, and pushing the poor out of their homes, policing and closing schools and mental health clinics, the things that Rahm Emanuel is doing,” says Seline Racey, 17. “Violence is framed as the ‘bad apples’ theory, but you need to critique authority and hierarchical structures.”
Patrick Blanton, 16, thinks the segment on school closings is especially important because many people “give up on the schools and try to turn away instead of facing the problems.” As the cast “pieced together all these tragedies, we formed a bond onstage and offstage,” he notes. And the intense personal stories conveyed in the play “are not to make people feel sorry for us. We want people to speak out.”
In response to In These Times’ query about the incident, After School Matters spokesperson Michael Crowley sent a statement that said, in part:
We encourage our programs to teach teens the important professional skill of creating their work products with potential audiences, partners and collaborators in mind. To that end, After School Matters strongly discourages any content, including but not limited to profanity and defamation, which could be considered disturbing or inappropriate for such audiences. These policies and guidelines are communicated directly to program providers prior to the start of all program sessions and included in program contracts. Additionally, our program staff works directly with program providers on an ongoing basis to ensure that they are aware of and that teen work reflects these parameters.
Gamboa feels that the program directors’ order to remove parts of the original play represents a larger and more troubling reflection of what society considers “appropriate” material for young people.
“There’s a paternalistic logic that goes throughout our whole political system,” Gamboa explains. “It’s about the government spying on everyday citizens, it’s about representatives making decisions against popular sentiment, with the idea that they have expertise and they know better. … What’s most important is demonstrating how young people — and not just young people, everyday people that don’t have badges, political titles or academic credentials or celebrity status — can be involved in the conversation about what is happening in the city and in their communities.”
Jesse Murphy, 17, saw last summer’s censorship as a sign of the power youth can have when they speak out. “The reason someone tries to stop you is that they’re afraid. To think we could make them quake in their boots like that … [Censorship] has happened throughout history, and it’s going to keep happening unless we do something about it.”
The Young Fugitives’ performance “Cold Summer” runs Fridays at 6:30pm and Saturdays at 2:30pm through February 15 at Free Street Theater, 1419 W. Blackhawk in Chicago, with sliding scale admission. (773) 772-7248.
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.