How Long Will I Cry? at Steppenwolf

A play chronicling youth violence in Chicago debuts at Steppenwolf.

“I asked [Brooks], what have you learned?” Harvey says. “He said, ‘One of the things I’ve learned is that you can change laws all you want, and I still want laws to change. But for real change to be made, you’ve gotta change hearts. That’s the tricky kind of change.’ ”


Another major figure in the play was never interviewed by Harvey or his students. DePaul student Francisco “Frankie” Valencia was shot to death by alleged gang members outside a Halloween party in Humboldt Park in 2009. The bright, ambitious 21-year-old is represented via writings and videos he left behind, as well as the recollections of his mother, Joy McCormack, and his friend Daisy Camacho, who was injured in the shooting. All three are portrayed onstage.


Harvey, a first-time dramatist, got assistance in paring down the more than 4,000 pages of transcripts from Kelli Simpkins, one of the original creators of The Laramie Project as a member of Tectonic Theater Project. She’s also collaborated on other “verbatim theater” pieces, including the Jonestown chronicle The People’s Temple, seen at American Theater Company in 2008.


“I came in and we started doing workshops with Hallie, Miles and a few of his graduate students who were really in-depth working on this project. We got in a room and just started hearing the material,” Simpkins says. “I asked a lot of questions—anything that might help him to engage the material in a certain way, find a way to organize it and find out what characters in the room really created a whew! kind of moment.”


“Her experience with this sort of documentary-style theater has been so invaluable in making sure the stories being told are honest and direct and hopefully will affect people—get people to really listen,” Torres says.


“We talked to a nurse at Stroger Hospital in the trauma unit, who just—his perspective on things was so interesting and amazing, dealing with shot-up kids all the time,” Harvey says. “The county coroner talking about how hard it is to push a scalpel through skin, just physically, the first time—but also emotionally, like, you’re violating this body. A lot of these kids just talked really openly about their fears—their terror of both being in the gang and getting out of the gang.”


Harvey and his students sometimes experienced resistance in the communities they entered. “I wasn’t always well received. Some people said, ‘White man, why are you stealing our stories? You’ve got no business coming here and taking our stories,’ ” Harvey says. “The second part, what I heard from some of the same people was, ‘Why isn’t anyone paying attention to these stories?’ The thing I always tell my students is, people want to be heard. Most people, if you approach them the right way, want to tell their stories.”


Only a fraction of those stories could be used in the play, so Harvey and his students are producing a companion book to contain additional interviews, tentatively scheduled for publication this spring; it’ll be distributed free to community groups and educators.


“We are well aware that we’re not pioneers in this effort,” Harvey says. “But one thing I always tell my students is I believe in the power of bearing witness. What we’re really trying to do is take a measure of the cost, the human cost of this violence.”


Public performances of How Long Will I Cry? are March 2, 4, 9, 18 and 23 at Steppenwolf. Visit steppenwolf.org for the schedule of Chicago Public Library performances.


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