Miles Harvey miscalculated when he decided to make himself a character in his own play. At the invitation of Hallie Gordon, who runs Steppenwolf Theatre's Steppenwolf for Young Adults program, Harvey and seven of his DePaul University students set about creating a documentary-style theater piece on the subject of youth violence—that is, kids killing kids—in Chicago. The finished work is narrated by a Harvey doppelganger (Mark Ulrich): a white, male, middle-aged, middle-class English professor working on a documentary-style theater piece. The conceit comes across as a form of self-defense masquerading as honesty. Clearly expecting to be accused of cultural colonialism for appropriating the stories of his mostly nonwhite subjects, Harvey has painted the bull's-eye on his own forehead first. It's a futile, distracting gesture, and it makes him look narcissistic to boot.
But that's the only wrong move in this otherwise powerful production. While throwing no end of alarming stats at us, Harvey the playwright also very wisely focuses on a few true stories that put sharply drawn faces to the catastrophe that's overtaken whole city neighborhoods. And the killers are as carefully and compellingly limned as the victims in Edward Torres's elegiac staging. J. Salome Martinez Jr., particularly, gives a quietly devastating performance as Berly Valladares, a young murderer. In a telling bit of civic symbolism, William Boles's set features two monoliths resembling the Crown fountain in Millennium Park.
When it's not at Steppenwolf, How Long Will I Cry? tours Chicago on the following schedule: Tue 3/12, 11 AM, Austin branch library, 5615 W. Race; Wed 3/13, 11 AM, Little Village Branch Library, 2311 S. Kedzie, and 5 PM, Gary Comer Youth Center, 7200 S. Ingleside; Thu 3/14, 11 AM, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State, and 5 PM, Whitney Young branch library, 7901 S. King; Sat 3/16, Humboldt Park Branch Library, 1605 N. Troy, free, reservations required.