Can the arts help curtail the killing?

The city’s kids are dying, and something has to be done. The arts have a role.

Hallie Gordon, center, the director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, at a gathering in February for the 2012 Cultural Plan for Chicago. Hallie Gordon, center, the director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, at a gathering in February for the 2012 Cultural Plan for Chicago. (Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune / July 13, 2012)

Written by Chris Jones Theater critic for The Chicago Tribune

On Monday night, following a weekend that saw 17 people shot in Chicago and with the memories of the shootings of 7-year-old Heaven Sutton and 10-year-old Kitanna Peterson fresh on everyone’s minds, Scott Pelley of the CBS Evening News asked Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel why the Chicago murder rate was up by 38 percent.

“Well, first of all, Scott,” Emanuel said, “let’s give everybody — your viewers — a fair view. Crime year over year is down 10 percent.”

That was an accurate but not a well-timed observation. Sure, strong political leaders know statistics can be manipulated for political or sensationalist ends and are hard-wired to put them in context. And it’s part of the mayor’s job to defend his city and those who work hard on its tough, complex problems. Still, you could almost feel Emanuel’s many supporters cringing in front of their TVs.

As the plain-spoken Don Welsh, the city’s tourism chief, implied last week in a meeting with the Tribune editorial board, when young people are being murdered at this alarming rate, it trumps tourism initiatives, cultural initiatives, arts initiatives, any darn initiatives you care to name. There’s no point in building parks or museums or putting out come-to-Chicago ads in the face of such killings. And when the children of a great American city can’t even sit in the park without fearing for their lives, any response other than abject, shared horror and a stated, straight-in-the-camera determination to focus on this, above all else, right now, just doesn’t feel adequate. Emanuel, who clearly feels this pain deeply and personally, knows that very well.

Last week in Chicago, we all seemed to suddenly hit a kind of tipping point when it comes to shootings. It has taken a long time coming, in part because of the concentrated nature of the gang-related violence in certain areas of the city that are easy for some to ignore, and that allow more privileged lives to continue, seemingly unaffected, in the parallel beauty of a sunbaked city with its summer-turquoise lake.

Still, last week, the steady drumbeat finally became a more widespread alarm. You could hear it ringing all over town.

Two performance pieces that deal with themes of gang violence happened to open within 24 hours of each other in Chicago last weekend: “Crowns” at the Goodman Theatre and “Oedipus el Rey” at the Victory Gardens Theater. In the former, a young girl sees her brother get shot in Englewood and is sent away to South Carolina to a community of church-going African-American women who teach her how to develop personal pride and make more of her life when she gets back home to Chicago. See it, and you’ll want to charter buses for more of the city’s kids.

In the latter, the classical Greek tragedy is transported to the gangland of South Central Los Angeles, where its structure of violence and turmoil feels very much at home. In a program note, the theater’s new artistic director, Chay Yew, wrote about the violence this summer in Chicago and pointed to the play’s themes of pointless killings, misplaced honor and bankrupt mythologizing, and a criminal justice system that mostly hardens repeat offenders.

But the gunshots have been coming at such an alarming rate these past few days, the necessary metaphors of art are starting to feel inadequate. It’s just not enough. That’s how it felt at the theater last weekend, even if that was hardly fair to those shows.

Hallie Gordon, education director at Steppenwolf Theatre, says she’s been in that place for quite a while — at least since the filmed murder of Derrion Albert in 2009 brought a horrific picture to some of the people who rarely venture into the most violent Chicago neighborhoods. “From that point,” Gordon said in an interview last week, “nobody could say this is not our part of the city.”

Gordon sends artists into some gang-plagued public schools, and it has become self-evident, she said, that no other aim (education, creative expression, job training, whatever) any teaching artist might have is worth a hill of beans if the kids they are trying to serve are terrified of being shot. Since there’s no point doing anything else, you might as well tackle shootings.

And thus Gordon is spearheading a new, and aptly named, inter-arts project also involving several other Chicago arts institutions, the Chicago Public Library and DePaul University. It’s called Now is the Time. The aim, Gordon said, is to focus on this crisis in many different ways and use the arts to help stop the killing of young Chicagoans. It has yet to get much attention.

But isn’t some “artistic response” to this crisis going to be marginal at best? Even laughably so? Isn’t reducing the murder rate a matter of studying CompStat crime data or changing police tactics or coming up with political solutions? A bunch of storytellers or dancers headed to the front lines sounds like a joke.

Gordon stopped talking for a moment. “You can’t show up in some school and talk about the arts — the arts! — when there is this other huge thing in these kids’ lives,” she eventually said. “But you so rarely hear the kids’ voices in all of this. The kids themselves are not listening to the rhetoric of these officials who are focused on trying to solve this really big problem. The kids don’t really know what’s going on around them. In their minds, nothing is being done to help them.”

The patchwork of cultural groups and programs that serve the children of gangland are hardly immune from intramural squabbles, artistic indulgences, trivialities and their own battles for money, turf or moral authority.

But certain facts have been well proven: The presence of the arts in a neighborhood makes that neighborhood safer, if only because kids spend more time out of a bullet’s way. The arts really are one of the few ways open for these kids to express themselves and safely tell — or paint or play — their side of a tough story. This city’s poets, musicians, writers, dancers, muralists, painters, actors are a world-renowned civic strength and, in this crisis, a mostly untapped resource, especially if we’re talking about an en masse deployment, in wave after wave. It’s not like anything else seems to be working.

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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Can the arts help curtail the killing?

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