Francisco “Frankie” Valencia had his entire life planned out: Go to law school, become a politician, then teach high-school history. The DePaul University student sought to be a mentor and a voice for Latino youth, and he was even nominated for an internship at the White House. But on November 9, 2009, when he was set to receive the Lincoln Laureate Award presented annually to outstanding Illinois seniors, family members had to accept the honor in his place. Just nine days earlier, Valencia had been fatally shot by two alleged gang members.
His story is one among many in How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, the newest production from Steppenwolf for Young Adults (SYA), premiering February 26. The script draws from about 70 interviews conducted by DePaul University creative-writing professor Miles Harvey and his students over a two-year span. The voices included range from gang members to victims’ families, emergency-room doctors to judges, thereby developing a complex chorus of Chicagoans.
“One thing art in general does really well is make you see your world from a fresh perspective,” says Harvey, best-selling author of The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime. “Maybe for people who are not from these neighborhoods, [it will] make this epidemic of violence feel like something real and not just something that comes on TV with a reporter.”
Directed by Edward Torres, who’s worked as a criminal defense investigator for the past 15 years, the play features video projections to complement an ensemble of nine actors (ranging from unknown twentysomethings to theater veterans) playing more than 15 actual Chicagoans, though most names are changed for protection purposes. All of the dialogue comes directly from Harvey’s edited interviews, as well as court transcripts, police documents and found texts (e.g. writings left behind by Valencia). “The crux of the problem is the people committing this senseless violence,” says Torres, who grew up with gang violence on the Southeast Side. “We’ve got to talk about them too.”
Torres takes a minimalistic approach with the show, theatrically enhancing the stories with sound, music and a backdrop of Chicago streets (think blue-light Chicago police lamps on set) rather than overriding them. “I want to present the situation for what it is,” Torres says. “I don’t want it to be cliché.”
The play itself is part of a larger initiative called Now Is the Time started by SYA director Hallie Gordon—in collaboration with the Chicago Public Library, international education organization Facing History and Ourselves, and more than 15 theater groups around the city—to bring attention to the issue of youth violence. Forty-six children under the age of 17 were murdered in the city in 2012, according to statistics from the Chicago Police Department recorded through October. There have also been 362 incidences of aggravated battery with a firearm involving victims under age 17.
Youth violence “is almost like the elephant in the classroom at this point,” says Gordon, who was moved to action after the fatal beating of Chicago student Derrion Albert in 2009. “How can we talk about things that are important to teens without this being part of that conversation? We can’t anymore. That’s how bad it’s gotten.”
After its two-week stint at Steppenwolf, the cast of How Long Will I Cry? will head out to seven Chicago Public Library locations from March 11–16 for neighborhood performances followed by workshops and talkbacks. A book and website will also be released to feature many of the interviews not included in the script.
“One of the parts of the play and the book that I think is so important is [they] illustrate how complicated these issues are,” says Valencia’s mother, Joy McCormack, who founded Chicago’s Citizens for Change to provide resources to families affected by youth violence after her son was killed. “This is everyone’s issue and everyone’s problem. I think our family’s story is a good example of that. It doesn’t matter where you live or how much money you have in the bank or what your education level is.”
Steppenwolf’s How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence runs March 2–16 at various locations. Watch for ways you can get involved in the February 14 issue of Time Out Chicago.