The documentary play "How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence" is unsettling from the outset.
The Steppenwolf for Young Adults world premiere launches with a real-life 911 dispatch recording about a 2009 shooting in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, before blending into a number of startling statistics about the high number of city murders in recent years.
"How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Steppenwolf for Young Adults at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 9 and 23, and Monday, March 18; also on tour at select Chicago Public Libraries between Monday, March 11, through Saturday, March 16
Running time: About 90 minutes with intermission
Parking: Nearby pay parking garage and street parking
Rating: For teenagers and adults: violence and profanity
Much like the currently running "Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology" by Collaboraction in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, "How Long Will I Cry?" serves as both an artistic response and a wake-up call to the shocking amount of youth violence in Chicago. Of the two plays, Steppenwolf's production is better focused and more personable in its treatment of people talking about their experiences and losses.
"How Long Will I Cry?" was spearheaded by DePaul University professor and playwright Miles Harvey, who led a team of creative-writing students (specifically Lisa Applegate, Bethany Brownholtz, Jacob Sabolo, Kristin Scheffers, Michael Van Kerckhove, Collen Wick and Alexis Wigodsky) to conduct the interviews and collect the transcripts that make up the raw material for the play.
The documentary style of "The Laramie Project" is a major influence to the structure of "How Long Will I Cry?" That's no coincidence since Tectonic Theater Project member Kelli Simpkins (who helped create that influential 2000 drama about the 1998 beating death of gay college student Matthew Shepard) is credited as an artistic consultant.
Like "The Laramie Project," a group of actors portray multiple roles save for Mark Ulrich as The Narrator, essentially standing in for playwright Harvey onstage as he explains why it is so vital to collect and share other people's life stories.
Prominently featured people include Pastor Corey Brooks (played by Mark Smith), who undertook a rooftop fundraising vigil to get a derelict motel, a magnet for drug deals and prostitution, torn down, and Diane Latiker (played by Celeste Williams), a founder of the group Kids Off the Block who planned a memorial to young people killed in Chicago.
Former gang members (whose names have been changed to protect their privacy and security) are also interviewed, giving personal insight as to why they joined and why they decided to get out. And then there's the stark mechanics of death via interviews with an emergency room doctor and a medical examiner who performs autopsies.
But "How Long Will I Cry?" is also very personal to Harvey, since the work keeps circling to the 2009 death of DePaul honors student Frankie Valencia, who was shot by gang members while attending a Halloween party.
Valencia's friends and family are interviewed (Tara Mallen as his mother, Joy McCormack, is particularly affecting), and transcripts from the police interrogation and trial of the convicted gang members Narcisco Gatica (Jessie David Perez) and Berly Valladares (J. Salome Martinez, Jr.) are used.
Also incorporated into the work is the late Valencia himself in the guise of actor Gabriel Ruiz, as well as on video. The footage is an example of the great work of projection designer Michael Fernandez, whose original and culled footage is frequently disturbing.
When you see all the people affected by Valencia's murder, it gives a sense of how many are impacted by the hundreds of murders that took place in Chicago in recent years. "How Long Will I Cry?" doesn't give pat answers, though it questions the availability of assault weapons and turns to the audience at the end over what actions they could personally take to reduce the violence.
Director Edward F. Torres has assembled a stellar cast, and the flow of his production is skillfully adept and appropriately shocking when it needs to be.
If there's one fault with "How Long Will I Cry?," it's that the show's run is so limited -- despite the many free outreach performances at different Chicago Public Library locations. "How Long Will I Cry?" is thought-provoking and powerful, and its tough stories -- and call for change -- should be heard by more audiences.