For once, the Collaboraction Theatre Company has justified its name.
"Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology," far and away the best Collaboraction show I've seen these past 14 years, is indeed a call for collaborative action. The ensemble piece, which premiered Monday night and probes the current epidemic of violent crime in this city, offers a veritable plethora of problems, contexts and solutions. It was created by both members of the theater company and by community activists from the likes of the Precious Blood Ministry, Embarc and the McCormick Tribune YMCA. Such pieces are, of course, worthy. Most people accept them as such. But they easily can, and frequently do, degenerate into the kind of required viewing that does not send you to the theater. You may well be ready to stop reading right now.
I might suggest you continue. To the great credit of Anthony Moseley, the director who conceived this project, this particular piece of theater avoids those usual traps. Certainly, there is a youthful aesthetic: the show begins with music, a bar in the theater and people milling around. That struck me at first as an off-note (a cocktail and then a consideration of the deathtrap that is great swaths of Chicago?) but it's actually one of the things that makes this show distinctive. And if young people aren't on board trying to solve this problem, it is unlikely to get solved.
Nonetheless, "Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology" works as a piece of theater primarily because it brings up enough separate contributing factors that your head reels, and because it feels real. And when you're putting together a variety of crime scenes, jail scenes, talking-worthies scenes — you get the idea — that is very hard to achieve. There is something particularly special about this cast. Eric Walker, Scott Baity Jr., Victoria Blade, Luis Crespo, Miranda Gonzalez, Michael Johnson, Eddie Jordan III, Laura Korn, James Lynch, Patrese McClain, Eamonn McDonagh, Niall McGinty, Medina Perine and, especially, 17-year-old Shavac Prakash and Lisandra Tena, are, for the most part, playing people in pain — and they have imbued their work enough of that pain that you feel that the re-creations of the experiences of victims, shot by unseen assailants or by those whose childhood they shared, ring with truth.
The show is admirably frank; it does not present these deaths as a national problem but as a specifically Chicago problem with a referent in Chicago history. It begins with a tour of Chicago's bloody history: the Valentine's Day Massacre, the Memorial Day Massacre, the Division Street riots, the Haymarket riot, the Martin Luther King riots. And it ponders another history that began with the Blackstone Rangers, a group formed in Woodlawn in the 1960s that became (depending on whose history you favor) an important early street organization or Chicago's first gang.
At one point in this fast-paced piece, I started writing down things that were being said about the Chicago shooting epidemic that I either did not know or felt I had not fully considered.
Twitter now plays a big role in these shootings, since young gang members have a habit of announcing their precise location for anyone to find them. And you can insult people — and that act cannot be overstated as the current prime motivator of killing someone, very nicely in 140 characters or less. And there is no dialogue.
Between 75th and 79th Streets, they call it "Terror Town" There is now a whole generation of Chicago children who have never been to the lakefront. By lopping off gang leaders, we've made things more chaotic and more dangerous.
I could go on. "Crime Scene" is smart enough to confront its own arty presumptions. The best scene of the night actually takes place in a detention center where these actors we're watching have come to do some kind of performance on career day before a sceptical group of at-risk youth who have put others at risk as well.
The scene lets the absurdity of a bunch of theater people trying to solve an epidemic that has (so far) beaten politicians, police officers and educators in an area of Chicago that, thanks to the history of sociology inquiry at the University of Chicago, is one of the most studied areas of the United States, sink in for a while. There are some laughs.
And then Tena, a formidable talent with some bonafides from her own struggles in life, starts to talk. She is, really, just talking to young people, who are the ones doing the killing and being killed.
THEATER REVIEW: "Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology" by Collaboraction Theatre Company
When: Through March 10
Where: Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes