Chicago Youth Theater Refuses To Be Silenced

Teens in Chicago are overcoming censorship to share their perspectives on the city’s social issues.

Kari Lydersen

Members of the Young Fugitives ensemble sit backstage at Free Street Theater. (Ricardo Gamboa)

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. 

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.'

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) 7727248.

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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