A community dialogue

Recently TimeLine, in collaboration with North Grand High School, presented a one-night-only staged reading of My Kind of Town, the play by John Conroy that puts a human face on the police torture scandal that has plagued Chicago for more than three decades; it was directed by Nick Bowling and featured many of the original cast. A presentation of our Living History Education Program, the play reading was followed by a community discussion moderated by North Grand students who participated in a special educational residency in the four days leading up to the reading. Also in attendance were students from Perspectives Charter High School, another Living History participant, as well as members of the North Grand community and TimeLine patrons.

Here are reflections on the event (which took place on Monday, November 10, 2014) from two Living History teaching artists:

How can a piece of art create a community dialogue?
by Ali Delianides, Living History Teaching Artist

When walking into Perspectives Charter High School, we were faced with this question, among many others.

Cast members during the Living History reading of "My Kind of Town" on November 10, 2014.
Cast members perform a staged reading of “My Kind of Town” at North Grand High School as part of TimeLine’s Living History Education Program on November 10, 2014.

The students had spent the week prior to our arrival reading the My Kind Of Town script and had started learning about this police torture scandal as told through the play that first premiered at TimeLine in the spring of 2012.

We had four days to spend with these students. In those four days, we asked them to harness their inner bravery, read pages from John Conroy’s script, and bring these characters to life. These weren’t the characters that they would see during the reading on Monday night, but their versions of these characters. Like all actors, when faced with a piece of text we do our research into the characters lives, but we also pull from what we know, and the stories these students told spoke volumes as to what they knew about Chicago and what the justice system represented to them.

One of the more fearless students decided to take on the role of mother Rita Jeffries in the scene where her son, the imprisoned Otha, tells her that maybe he is guilty. Toward the end of the scene Rita says Otha’s name a number of times. Each time this student said, “Otha,” his voice and tone changed; it became more constant and fervent. When the scene was finished, I asked, “What were you thinking about when you said those lines?” His response: “I thought of my own mamma and what she would say to me if I was guilty or not of a crime. At the end of the day she always loves me no matter what, I’m her son, and no one is going to hurt her baby.”

Our students were divided in their feelings. Some of them believed that torture was a suitable form of punishment. “I agree with torturing criminals,” one student said. “But what if the ‘criminal’ was falsely charged, and turned out to be innocent?” Mr. Conroy asked on the day he spent in our class. The student stayed silent, then responded, “Well, I guess then we shouldn’t torture.” Another student said, “We should create guidelines depending on the degree of their crime.”

Derek Garza and Charles Gardner perform during the "My Kind of Town" reading at North Grand High School.
Derek Garza and Charles Gardner perform during the “My Kind of Town” reading at North Grand High School.

When the students asked the question, “Why make this story into a play?,” John recalled one night during the show’s run at TimeLine when an audience member gasped at the very end of the play. “That’s why,” he said. “As audience members, you are faced with these characters as opposed to just reading about them. Your connection is stronger and therefore the story stays with you.”

I think by having these conversations with the Perspective students, having them portray these characters reminds them that this story is not just an event from the past, but something that pertains to their world and their future. They expressed the desire for change, and they exemplified the drive and bravery to make it happen.

The Chicago in all of us
by Jessamyn Fitzpatrick, Living History Teaching Artist

I’m Chicago, born and raised. Proud of it too, for all my life. Recently I asked a group of high school juniors and seniors what that meant, “to have Chicago in you.” To be a bit tougher, one girl said. To know how to handle yourself in certain neighborhoods. To jaywalk. Everyone agreed that there is something about this city, something about the cold and the grit of it that toughens you up around the edges.

When I first saw John Conroy’s My Kind of Town at TimeLine in 2012, I left the theatre in a state of shock. Never in my 24 years had I heard about Jon Burge or the Area 2 torture scandal. Never had I connected myself to a city that would sanction torture and turn a blind eye to its victims. But it is easy for a young white girl growing up on the North side to ignore the realities of systemic, racialized violence in our law enforcement. I didn’t want to ignore it anymore.

In light of the protests in Ferguson, the public outcry against police violence and the devaluation of black lives, Juliet Hart (director of Timeline’s Living History Education Program) proposed that we do a residency around My Kind of Town. The shooting of Michael Brown is yet another story about an unarmed young black man who is killed without anyone facing prosecution, prompting deep feelings of frustration and disillusionment. Like Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. And countless others that our mass media chose not to cover. My Kind of Town centers around the Area 2 police torture scandal in Chicago that took place decades ago, and yet so much of its story is very much a reality lived by many every day.

North Grand High School students lead a community discussion after the reading of "My Kind of Town."
North Grand High School students lead a community discussion after the reading of “My Kind of Town.”

What better way to honor TimeLine’s commitment to spark dialogue around contemporary issues than to take another look at this play and ask the hard questions it poses about justice and violence. The project itself was ambitious: four days with a group of high school students to introduce them to the play and then empower them to host a community event featuring a staged reading of the play followed by a facilitated dialogue. None of us knew what to expect. The students were unfamiliar with the story, as I had been, and all of us wondered if anyone would even come to the event.

The experience was extraordinary. As so often happens with Living History, I found myself in awe of the insight of these students. We talked about what it meant to have power—which, they agreed—even the best of us were prone to abusing. We talked about police—one student who had lived in Arizona noted: “When I was there I didn’t think badly about cops, but here everyone hates them, so I guess I do, too. It makes sense because there’s a lot more violence here, I guess.”

We talked about what it meant and how it felt to live in a city that had recently been nicknamed “Chi-raq,” and how that image of death and violence bled into our own tolerance for such things.

And I will never forget the day we had John Conroy in the classroom, when I watched them actually connect story to reality as they looked over the images of real-life torture victim Andrew Wilson’s scarred body. They took on a lot in those four days, and still remained hungry for a full dose of the reality behind this production.

The evening of the event was incredible. The play was just as sharp and powerful as a reading as it was when I saw the full production two years ago. The story still gives me chills. We had an incredible experience sharing this story with an auditorium of other students, TimeLine staff and subscribers and a few other individuals from the greater community.

It is not a joy to watch a 17 year old come to terms with the fact that men were systematically tortured by individuals sworn to protect and serve us. There is little pleasure in uncovering just how ugly and cruel we as a society can be. However, when I work with students like the ones at North Grand, I cannot help but feel a profound hope that their horror, their indignation, will put us on a path to somewhere better.

Cast and students during the community discussion after a reading of "My Kind of Town" at North Grand High School in November.
Cast and students during the community discussion after a reading of “My Kind of Town” at North Grand High School in November.

In talking with Ms. Livas (their teacher), Juliet and I came to the understanding that this was to be a way for them to take power and feel the weight of it, for them to have their voices heard in the hopes that, as they grow up, they will not lose those voices, but use them with conviction.

In the end, that is the greatest gift I think a play like this offers—the reminder that we all are part of these stories, and so we all carry the potential to improve upon them for the future. To borrow a phrase from Conroy’s text, “We are all in the room.”

As our North Grand Students reflected at the end of the evening, now, more than ever, it is time that we step up.

TimeLine’s Living History Education Program is an arts integration residency that is closely in tune with the mission of TimeLine. The curriculum is designed to teach theatre skills while fostering the capacity to think creatively, to make connections, and to provide new ways of understanding history and the world around us. For more information, visit our website …

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