Can the arts help curtail the killing?
Chris Jones, 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.