Dramatic Rescue

Edward Torres’s Journey From Street to Stage

By Jack Helbig

At 16 Edward Torres didn’t care about school. He’d put in an appearance now and then, but his life was with his gang. “They were like my real family, you know,” he says. “We took care of each other. We had meetings. We had parties. We had house parties. And it was fun. It was a blast.”

Torres’s own family was in trouble. When his mom and dad weren’t fighting, they weren’t around at all. His dad put in long hours as an auto mechanic while his mom worked on an assembly line putting together hearing aids; the plant on Austin was an hour-long commute from their home near 91st and Stony Island. When Torres was in junior high his parents sent him to live with his aunt in Humboldt Park, but he got homesick after a year and a half and moved back in with his folks. He started going to Bowen High School at 89th and the Skyway and found the school divided into three warring camps: white, black, and Latino. Not that the Latinos were united; the Mexicans, many of whom came from families that had lived on the south side since World War I, treated Torres and his Puerto Rican friends as interlopers.

Before long Torres “didn’t want to deal with the teachers, didn’t want to deal with homework, didn’t want to deal with my parents….Freshman year of high school, you start feeling no one cares about you. So you hang with some people who feel the same way, and that’s how a gang gets started.”

Most of the time they would just cut class and hang out at the park. “Police officers would come around and say, ‘What are you doing? You’re supposed to be in class.’ And you’d run.” This was in the late 70s, and when his gang fought, Torres claims, they fought with chains. “If there was a gun, one person was allowed to carry the gun and that was it. That was just in case someone from the other side had a gun.”

But Torres began to feel threatened. “People started to get to know me from different areas and different gangs. And they started to say, ‘Meet me here.’ Or, ‘You better watch your back because I’m going to get you,’ you know.” The police were putting pressure on him too. “When police officers start to learn your name and who you’re hanging out with and what you’re doing, and they know where you’re supposed to be and your class schedule, then you know you’re crossing the line.”

One day a friend of Torres’s was stabbed by a rival gang member in the breezeway of his high school. Torres was immediately caught up in his gang’s plans to get even. “There was this whole retaliation thing: you got my partner so I’m going to get your partner. It’s funny. People say, ‘Oh yeah, the whole gang thing is macho stuff,’ but a lot of the guys I knew were sensitive people. That someone got stabbed made them angry. Crying and frustrated, like they couldn’t take it anymore.”

A week after the stabbing, Torres’s gang planned to skip school and “figure out some payback.” But that day a theater troupe was performing at Bowen, and Torres found himself being herded from homeroom directly to the school auditorium. He figured, “I’ll go to the auditorium, and then I’ll leave before we go in.” At the entrance Torres saw people unloading some lighting equipment from a truck, then a set piece. “I was very curious,” Torres recalls. “OK, I thought, I’ll go in and see what they’re doing and then I’ll leave.”

Onstage was a simple set lit by a few portable lights. A man came out and told the students they were about to see scenes from a play Victory Gardens was staging at its theater on North Clark (in the building that later became Cabaret Metro). The play was called Latino Chicago, and a discussion would follow the show. “I’m like, ‘Forget this bullshit. That set looks nice, but they’re just going to do a little presentation. You know what, I don’t have time for this.'” He headed toward the exit, but teachers were posted at every door. He went to the front of the auditorium but found the fire exits chained shut. “You’re not supposed to chain fire exits,” Torres says. “I was really pissed off. I had to sit there and watch this stupid play.”

The first piece was a mimed sequence about a man getting up and going to work. Along the way he met different characters: a bum on the street, a gangbanger. “At one point the man had an argument with this woman, and he slapped her. And I remembered my dad slapping my mom.” The next piece was a short play about a father and son who could never communicate “because the dad was speaking Spanish and the son was speaking English. They got into a fight about going to school, and the son left the family and never came back.” The piece ended with a monologue by the father, about how he wished he’d tried to communicate. The scene after that involved a mother whose gangbanging son is killed “and how she was never there for him, to listen to him, to hold him, to kiss him, to caress him.” Torres was deeply moved. “It was my story.”

When the lights came up, he couldn’t bring himself to leave the auditorium. Long after everyone else had left, Torres remained in his seat, staring at the set and rerunning the play in his head.

Dennis Zacek, artistic director of Victory Gardens, approached him and asked if he liked the show. He offered Torres free tickets to the performance. “Come anytime,” Zacek said. “But when you’re there, let me know so I can come and talk with you.” He introduced Torres to the show’s actors. One of them, Juan Ramirez, encouraged him to see the show.

It took Torres a week to get up the nerve, but finally he asked his dad to drive him to Victory Gardens. “I said to him, ‘If you don’t do anything else for me, give me a ride to Clark Street and let me watch the play. If you don’t want to see the play, I understand.’ And he said, ‘You know what? I’m going to come watch the play with you.’ That day, I’ll never forget. I’d never seen Wrigley Field before. And as we drove by I thought, Wow, that’s where the Cubs play.” They parked nearby and, because they were early, went to a doughnut shop. “We ate doughnuts and really started talking about all these problems I was having. It really gave us a moment in time to talk.”

After the play, Torres’s father said, “This is really neat. Is this something you think you would like to do?”

“Yeah,” Torres responded, “this is what I think I’d like to do.”

From that day, says Torres, he began to change his life. He transferred from Bowen to Jones Commercial, spent some time in the air force, then earned a degree at Roosevelt University, the whole time working in theater whenever he could fit it in. In 1991 he was invited to join Latino Chicago Theater Company, which Ramirez and others had started, taking its name from the show Torres saw ten years earlier. Now Torres is acting and directing for Teatro Vista, the theater company he helped found. Torres credits Latino Chicago for helping him to put his life together. Recently he went back to Bowen to lead a series of theater workshops and take students to Steppenwolf during the day to see The Boiler Room, which he directed. A coproduction of Teatro Vista and Steppenwolf, The Boiler Room shows what life is like in the barrios of the 90s.

“It was really weird the first time I stepped into the building,” says Torres. “There used to be entrances all over the building; now there’s one entrance. And that one is covered with metal detectors. When I went in I felt like I was going into a prison.” The school is even rougher that it was in the late 70s: last year it had two gang-related murders. But that only makes Torres more determined to bring theater to the school. “I feel like I’ve gone full circle. I keep hoping I can give something back, I keep hoping I can reach someone who is like I was then.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Nathan Mandell.