The main scenic elements for "How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence," the latest in a sudden string of intense Chicago productions aiming to engage us in the crisis of youth violence, have a distinct resemblance to the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. But instead of the amusing faces of Chicagoans spewing water on happy kids, these twin towers host a crawl of the names of the young, the made in Chicago and the murdered.
The recently murdered. The names of victims shot in 2013, updated through the last few days, is already shamefully long. There is no need to go further back in time for the point to be made.
I've no idea if William Boles, the designer of director Edwards Torres' production for Steppenwolf for Young Adults, intended the resemblance to the landmark fountain. But it fits the thesis of this show, which aims to raise the consciousness of Chicagoans of all stripes by asking, directly, if things would be different if these killing were taking place on different blocks in different neighborhoods. Would there then be a broader sense of outrage?
Well, of course there would be. We all know that, even if we choose not to think too much about it. But pointing that out, along with putting faces on the victims of this crisis and searing their names into a broader consciousness, are the goals of a piece that also tries to put these killings in some kind of socio-economic context. Without a lot of people having some sense of the causes — which are myriad and, there is no shame in admitting, perplexing — it is hard to see how there can be broad buy-in to a solution.
In artistic terms, "How Long Will I Cry?" has its limitations. It was penned by Miles Harvey, a DePaul University English professor who sent his students out to interview those most directly impacted by this crisis. Harvey has structured the show essentially as his own journey with the issue, taken as a white, middle-age man, raised in the very suburbs that, following the so-called white flight, sucked much of the economic vitality out of parts of Chicago. That's fair enough, although, in practice, the character he has created for himself does not have enough zest to pull us through the story. The actor playing this narrator, Mark Ulrich, comes off as overly detached and stiff. Perhaps Harvey was being overly self-effacing, but the show would be much better if we felt more of the drama of a collective journey undertaken by this diverse group of young people and their teacher. We either need to know more about him or he has to stay in the background.
The actual interviews and statistics used in the piece are very compelling and well chosen, but the production, which features an ensemble cast, is often halting and inorganic. Fusing together interviews is difficult. "How Long Will I Cry?" does not have the scrappier dynamism (nor the sense of hope) of "Crime Scene," the powerful show on this very same topic currently by Collaboraction. That said, there just cannot be too many shows on this topic. This headier and more measured piece of theater is touring around town, raising awareness, as it should. There is a lot to learn from this sincere, earnest piece, especially from the scenes at the morgue or in the emergency room, where nurses finds themselves in surreal conversations with kids who think they can take a bullet or three and then get up and walk, just like in the movies.
Frankly, the well-chosen opening statistic is enough for you to sense the importance of the issue and thus the time spent with the show. In 2012, New York had 100 fewer murders than Chicago, despite three times the population. So why, again, is that?
When: Public performances are March 9, 18 and 23 (plus a tour of select Chicago Public Library branches March 11-16)
Where: Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye