“I shot that little bitch ’cause I felt like it!”
The shout came from the back of a dark hall on the South Side. For the next two minutes Juvon Johnson spoke flippantly about killing a little girl.
“You need to project more,” said James Pringle, founder of the Harlem Theatre Company of Chicago. “You need to watch your pacing, too.”
Practice, but very real.
The company’s rendition of Zooman and the Sign, a play by Charles Fuller about the impact of violence on Chicago communities, opens April 15, and everyone involved knows how important the play is to Pringle, who was brutally attacked on the South Side in 2007.
“This production is very near and dear to him,” said Reginald Glover, board secretary of the company, “as it should be to everyone in the community because we are all impacted by the problem.”
It’s no secret that the lower half of the city has a history of violence and poverty. From Jim Croce calling it the “baddest part of town,” to being the place where the rebellious Freeman kids in Aaron McGruder’s “The Boondocks” comic strip cut their teeth, the world has seen or heard about the gritty South Side of Chicago for decades.
Glover didn’t deny that violence is a problem for some neighborhoods south of the Loop, and he cited it as a catalyst for the theater company’s efforts.
“For those of us who grew up in Chicago and who live on the South Side of Chicago, we know that to be true,” Glover said. “But we want to do something that causes there to be a discussion with the people; galvanize the community so that we can come up with positive solutions to some of these problems.”
Mario L. Small, a sociologist at the University of Chicago who has done research on the South Side, said outsiders have some misconceptions about how bad the violence really is.
“Many people see the entire South Side as unsafe and violent,” Small said, “a place they wouldn’t want to visit or even pass through, unless they had to.”
But Small said some people understand that the area is more complex than its reputation.
“The South Side is a large, diverse set of neighborhoods,” he said. “More important, it has a rich history and a wide array of cultural institutions, restaurants and parks.”
Monica Prince, the financial secretary for the Harlem Theatre Company of Chicago, said that even people who live on the South Side are sometimes unaware of how much the area has to offer.
“You have to stay active in your community,” Prince said. “There are a lot of things on the South Side that, if you don’t get out and about, you wouldn’t know about. You’d be surprised what you would find.”
Just get off the Green Line on a Friday night at the Garfield Boulevard el stop to see one of those surprises.
‘Friday Night Lights’
“How come y’all are always talking about shooting somebody,” Tobias Pittman asked a crowd of kids after a young boy delivered a freestyle rap on stage. “Y’all supposed to be rapping about Mickey D’s and cereal.”
Anyone who visits the KLEO Center in Washington Park on a Friday night knows Pittman, 17. He hosts a special event every week.
Friday Night Live allows neighborhood kids and young adults to rap, sing, dance and perform poetry for a $50 prize and a week’s worth of bragging rights.
“We have a theme,” said the Rev. Torrey Barrett, owner of the KLEO Center. “Our theme is ‘take it to the stage.'”
Barrett said he started the event to try to lower the amount of violence in the community by giving young people a more creative way to settle their differences.
“It’s conflict resolution without telling them it’s conflict resolution,” Barrett said. “They end up squashing their beef on the stage as opposed to using guns and weapons to fight each other.”
Ironically, it was an act of violence that led to the KLEO Center getting its name. Barrett started renovating the building in 2007 with his sister Kleo Y. Barrett, but halfway through the renovation Kleo was killed by her ex-boyfriend.
“That really stunned our family deeply,” Barrett said. “At that time I thought about giving up on the renovation of the building, but I decided to go ahead and push forward with it.”
Barrett decided to name the building after Kleo after it was completed. The name is an acronym that means “Keep Loving Each Other.”
“This is really big for him and for me too because we go through a lot,” said Pittman, who says Barrett is like a father to him.
Pittman added that he has seen a difference in the amount of violence on Garfield Boulevard since the opening of the center. “This used to be a real bad neighborhood,” he said. “I’ve been seeing it die down. I can actually walk from the train to the church and nobody says anything.”
Pittman is not alone in his gratitude. Neighborhood artists are happy to show off their talents while staying off the streets.
“I love this,” said 21-year-old Justin Grant, who raps at Friday Night Live every week. “This is a nice environment and it’s different. It keeps me out of trouble.”
While the KLEO Center is taking positive steps to reduce youth violence in Washington Park, Barrett’s safe haven isn’t the only bright spot on the South Side. A priest in the Back of the Yards neighborhood has mentored young people for so long that he’s literally reading kids the stories of their parents.
‘The Longest Yard’
The Rev. Bruce Wellems refers to himself as a gringo.
The Spanish slang word for Americans is usually seen as offensive, but Wellems said he understands that some still see him as an outsider. That doesn’t stop him from reaching out to youths in a predominantly Hispanic Back of the Yards community.
Wellems said it’s all about finding a connection. “You have to create safety,” he said. “We also have to invite a dialogue with them so we get to know them.”
When he started reaching out to troubled youths in the mid-1990s, Wellems said free food was the key to getting people to show up. After offering pizza to anyone who attended, he attracted an audience of 17 neighborhood kids, and the numbers grew over time.
Wellems said he asked questions at the meetings that would get the kids to talk.
“They were discussions,” Wellems said. “We’d get an article and read it together or we would just ask a question and try to answer it.”
The result was a book called Reflections, a compilation of stories about the lives of the young men Wellems spoke with more than a decade ago. And for Wellems, the book, published in 2001, is still helpful in mentoring the younger generation that he works with now.
“We’re still using that book because some of their parents are in it,” he said.