Chicago violence, solutions come to life on stage

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If the goal of art is to imitate life and provoke thought, then the members of an acting troupe that recently performed at the Austin Town Hall would have to be considered masters.

Members of Collaboraction displayed their talents last month in the play “Crime Scene: Breathe Life,” a series of stories that show the effects of violence on various characters. It’s based on actual events in real life.

Opening with a brief history of Chicago’s racial tensions — warts and all — the cast explores the roots of violence, corruption and mistrust, bringing the audience up to date on the current state of unrest our city now faces.

“We’re trying to use theater as a tool to try and increase the peace by cultivating thought, dialogue and action,” said Anthony Moseley, who wrote and directed the play.

“We think we need to get more people to become part of the solution,” Moseley said. “And art, storytelling and powerful communication tools can be a part of that.”

The goal of the performance is to get people in Chicago to take a serious look at the city and make changes to improve everyone’s lives, he said.

To that end, a town hall discussion is held after each show to get people to share their reactions and offer solutions to the problems portrayed by the actors.

The post-show discussion is meant to be a sort of healing session and offer a personal interaction that you can’t get from passively watching events on the news, Moseley said.

“Nightly news beats us down with violence — because it sells — but there’s a lot of people doing heroic things, and we want to illuminate those in the play,” he said.

One of the cast members, 16-year-old Austin resident Monique Johnson, plays a character who is friends with Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot and killed in 2013 days after she performed at President Obama’s inauguration.

She said it was difficult to play the character because of the intense emotions surrounding the events of Pendleton’s death, but she hopes audience members will come away from the show with a deeper sense of togetherness.

“What I want them to take out of this is that people can come together,” Monique said.

“Let’s not be quiet anymore, let’s not be against each other, and let’s just all pitch in and help,” she said. “Be with us. Let’s continue this together.”

Monique said she grew up feeling detached from others, in part due to the us-against-the-world mentality so often found many neighborhoods.

But through acting, she said she’s found the empathy needed to connect with others.

“If I’m in need and I see you’re in need, I’m going to put my needs aside because maybe your needs are more important,” Monique said.

“Once you put yourself in someone else’s shoes as an actor, you realize your life is not that bad.

“(Acting) helped me in a way that I’m more at peace, more at ease, and I want to help. I don’t want to take; I want to give,” she said.

This was the third straight year the group has put on their traveling summer show. Residents were also treated to pizza and wings, and entertainment by the Example Setters, a spoken word and dance troupe.

Community participation is essential, Moseley said, and no part is too small to play.

“We say, ‘OK, what asset do have extra of that you can contribute to the peace movement on a consistent basis? A little bit of time, a little bit of money or maybe some cupcakes?’” Moseley said. “Whatever it is, pick a place that aligns with your values and give for a long period of time.”

A video trailer of the show can be found here.

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