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A Red Orchid Theatre’s youth ensemble probes intolerance, violence

gun with bullets steel

gun with bullets on steel

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‘Our City, Ourselves:
Youth Voices for Tolerance’

When: April 27-May 12

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells

Tickets: $12 ($8 students/seniors)

Info: (312) 943-8722;

Run time: One hour

Updated: May 26, 2013 6:01AM

Youth violence manifests itself in many different ways, and doesn’t always involve the use of a gun. Schoolyard bullying can leave deep, permanent scars. Cyberbullying has caused more than one adolescent to commit suicide. Books on the subject now form a very large pile.

So, can theater do anything to remedy the situation? Or are plays (including such recent vivid Chicago productions as “Columbinus” at the American Theater Company and “Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology” at Collaboraction), just an artful cry in the wilderness or a form of preaching to the choir?

The astonishingly gifted Youth Ensemble of A Red Orchid Theatre fervently believes in the active, transformative power of the stage. And those audiences lucky enough to have seen the troupe’s 2010 production of Homer’s “The Iliad” will recall that a cast of 13 tiny girls easily turned themselves into ferocious warriors.

These days, under the umbrella of Now is The Time — a coalition of more than 15 theater companies working in partnership with Steppenwolf Theatre, the Chicago Public Library, Facing History and Ourselves and other cultural institutions — A Red Orchid’s Youth Ensemble is writing and rehearsing its own material for a production with music titled, “Our City, Ourselves: Youth Voices for Tolerance.” The goal is “to create dialogue around the pervasive citywide issue of youth violence, intolerance and bullying.”

Here are some thoughts on theater’s power to confront these issues:


“The 16 kids in this show, who range in age from 11 to 18, are not just creators and performers. I think they now feel empowered to find new avenues of activism. They want the show to have a ripple effect; they want to call together a citywide summit on the issues. They’ve begun setting up Peace and Unity programs at their schools. And some have assembled book lists on the subject for their fellow students.”

“This has been a homework-heavy project, starting with having them write about their own experiences with violence and intolerance in poems, essays, personal narratives. We also assembled a research packet for the cast with information about how people have taken action on these problems, with crime statistics, and with articles on ‘the teenage brain,’ which I think helped them understand many things.”

“The ensemble comes from all over — from Avondale, Lawndale and Beverly, to Streeterville, Rogers Park and Naperville. And one of the most rewarding things about the whole project is to watch as kids from so many different backgrounds coalesce and trade their experiences. I just wish we could do this on a far greater, citywide scale.”

MELANIE THOMPSON, 17-year-old Youth Ensemble member, currently a student at Lane Tech

“I’ve lived my whole life in Humboldt Park and I can say I have personal awareness of gang violence among my neighbors and close family members. I haven’t seen a shooting, but I’ve heard shots. And I’ve seen many street fights that escalate into greater violence. For the most part the violence is between men, but in high school I’ve seen girls become very aggressive with insane fights that are scary to witness.”

“I recently saw ‘How Long Will I Cry?’ at Steppenwolf [a show based on interviews gathered by journalist Miles Harvey and his students at DePaul University that gave voice to families who experienced the tragic consequences of violence first-hand]. At the end they just read a list of all those under the age of 25 who had died in 2012 in Chicago. There was a great silence after that; it was just so hard to wrap your head around it.”

“I think theater like this needs to be brought to the streets. Many more people need to be exposed to it.”

LAWRENCE GRIMM, education director for A Red Orchid

“I confess I’m a little cynical when it comes to the ability of theater to
create dialogue beyond the stage. In my experience it mostly happens
among the cast, and that’s what is happening here. This diverse ensemble
has kids from Bronzeville talking to kids from Highland Park, and there is
much to learn from that.”

“The show weaves together three different stories, but one big focus
is the DANGER of tolerance — how it can turn us into bystanders. There
is a thin line between saying ‘I accept you’ and then turning away when
we see something.”

“All along I’ve been struck by the level of honesty of these kids — and the need to talk about it all. And then there is the great difference in experiences: One kid had a friend who was shot; another was the victim of Internet bullying.”

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