at Free Street Theater

I wish you had seen the things I’ve seen. Maybe then you’d understand why I stare, a glare on my face, almost as if a mannequin.–TeenStreet

Standing Out (In a Drive-by World) plays like a dispatch from the front. But here the war is in Chicago’s inner city. The murder of Dantrell Davis proved–for the ten thousandth time–that this conflict knows no civilians and takes no prisoners. Like The Me Nobody Knows, done in the 70s, or the Black Ensemble’s recent The Key to Bein’ Me or another Free Street Theater production, Project!, Standing Out is raw drama forged by people who live it every day.

TeenStreet is made up of two neighborhood performance troupes, one from the largely Latino and Asian Edgewater neighborhood and the other from the Cabrini-Green area. (Supported by the Chicago Initiative, TeenStreet is also a jobs-and-education program for kids from 14 to 21.) Last summer the TeenStreet teams performed two separate shows, Strugglers for a New World and The Kayotic Order-TKO, in 40 communities, to a total audience of 2,000. Now they’ve joined forces to present the hour-long Standing Out, its tightly knit vignettes either written or improvised by TeenStreet members.

Uncensored, in-your-face, and spiked with song, the show represents a small triumph of art over life–or imagination over AIDS, drugs, gangs, joblessness, guns, and rats. As one actor puts it, “Black male genocide rules our people.”

The setting is a darkly lit shelter where a group of mainly black teenagers gather to escape the gang-bangers and hold a clandestine party. (“We can’t go anywhere anymore,” one sighs.) It takes time for the kids to forget where they are–no party can disguise problems like the “boogie man,” the incarnation of their fears, who “kills people a little at a time” and “steals your will . . . and heart.” Others share stories of shootings, like one called “hole in the booty,” a grotesquely comic anecdote of a man who got shot. He was in the wrong place–but, they wonder, is there a right place? A bongo drum plays in the background as the kids tentatively begin a dance that’s alternately frantic and subdued. The poetry is, too; a refrain goes “Black . . . like the world outside; hard . . . like solidified lava; loud . . . like the voices inside; cold . . . like the air underneath.”

When all seems bleak at the end of the first act the cast get up and, taking the audience with them, boogie out of the space to Free Street’s studio theater, a hip-hop playground for the now-free teens. Leaping, crawling, miming, and whirling in free-form delirium and happy anarchy, with their shadows dancing across the ceiling, each testifies to a special view of heaven (not having to watch your back, pigging out, etc). Written by Claudia Arias, Carla Dames, Atlas Anderson, Ama Apua, and Chausse Manning, these monologues seem as spontaneous as a diary.

The second half returns to a meaner reality (and to the main theater), confronting peer and parental pressures, the constant, dispiriting lack of encouragement from adults (whether authority figures or neighbors), and the ethnic battle lines that divide and conquer. One actor, James Jenkins, defiantly pretends it’s still 1967 and he’s marching with Dr. King one last time; for all the progress made by the civil rights marchers, he implies, there was less fear then than now of being shot. But “we are going to win now, so my kids can just walk,” he says. “Can just walk for the fun of it.” Dantrell Davis asked no more.

In the final scene the teens find solidarity in an affirmation of multiculturalism and admit that ignorance–Puerto Rican kids fighting African Americans fighting Asian immigrants–keeps people from finding a common cause. The conclusion seems inescapable: nobody is born to be thrown away.

As staged by Ron Bieganski (who also helped to develop the script, with Betty Jackson), Standing Out offers fluid, persuasive urban testimony, as valuable for what it doesn’t say but makes you feel as for what it does. When you read the bios of these 15 young actors, you sense how much beyond their lives so far their ambitions will take them. As Atlas Anderson writes, “Free Street Theater has brought together two summer groups to show that teenagers from the worst places can make a difference in what’s going on in the world and around us in the community.”