An hour before curtain time the kids are already lining up, giggling with delight at the stars and begging them for autographs. It's a scene not at some huge amphitheater, but at the gymnasium at the Lincoln School in Cicero. And it's not some rich, nationally marketed teenybopper superstar the kids are squealing to see and touch, but a band of relatively unknown Chicago actors.
They're members of the Music/Theatre Workshop, a not-for-profit outfit that packs a message into every show. Over the last seven years the workshop has played at hundreds of schools in and around Chicago, performing original musicals that explore such issues as teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, gang violence, and peer pressure.
What's most remarkable about the group is that it successfully delivers its message without sounding too preachy. The backbone of each show is its songs, a mixture of rap, rock, blues, and Broadway pop, all original compositions by Meade Palidofsky and Claudia Howard Queen. Most of MTW's actors are Equity; the sets and lighting are elaborate and professional; each show costs several thousand dollars to produce. And judging by the roars of approval, the audience loves what it sees.
"They're great; I'm so happy they came to our school," says Lidia Villa, an eighth-grader at Lincoln. "I mean, the stuff is real, and they make you think."
The company began eight years ago as a collaborative effort between Palidofsky, Howard, and Elbrey Harrell. The plays are topical; the current show, Someone You Can Trust, is based on stories Palidofsky picked up from inmates she met while conducting workshops at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center (more commonly known as the Audy Home). After each performance, Palidofsky and the actors lead discussion groups with students about the show's themes.
Part of the reason for MTW's popularity is that Palidofsky and Harrell have an eye for talent. The performers in Someone You Can Trust--David Anzuelo, Daniel Bryant, Seraiah Carol, Anthony Diaz-Perez, Lori Kathryn Holton, McKinley Johnson, Stephanie Kaiserman, Kenneth Paul, Terrence Charles Rodgers, Marina Samaniego, Benjamin Shields, and Cynthia Suarez--are seasoned, versatile actors.
The group has scraped by on a budget of grants, donations, and whatever fees the schools it plays for can afford. Many teachers who've seen their work have suggested that they take it to larger venues outside the schools--TV, or legitimate theater.
"Everywhere we go people say we're great--it's just getting them to pay for us that's the problem," says Palidofsky. "Unfortunately, a lot of reviewers think we're a bunch of kids because we play in the schools. I guess they don't realize we're professionals. We're proud of what we do."
"This is different than performing before adults, and we realize that," says Holton, whose television and stage roles include the national tour of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. "We're using theater to inspire the imaginations of these kids, and to get them to dream again."
In Trust, Holton plays a drug addict who has abandoned her son. "This show's so real--we see it in every school we go to," she says. "Some of the gang-bangers think the greatest thing that can happen to them is to die. I had a kid say: 'I don't like gangs, and I don't like drugs, but this is what I was dealt.' He was a seventh-grader. It breaks my heart. We say these kids are killing each other, but it's not homicide. It's suicide."
MTW spends about two weeks at any given school, performing separate shows for the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. In between shows, the actors hang around the school, chatting with students.
"They look up to you, they expect more of you," says Diaz-Perez, who recently performed in the Goodman's production of The Good Person of Setzuan. "You have to be careful of what you say because they're watching you all the time. Like it or not, you're a role model."
Diaz-Perez says most of the male actors get the teenybopper treatment from the girls. "I haven't been pinched yet, but you get lots of 'Oh, you're so cute,'" he says. "Or the scene where one girl points to her friend and says, 'She thinks you're cute.'"
This is the third consecutive year MTW has performed in the Cicero schools, which have been struggling to contain a growing gang presence. Over the summer, a teenager was killed in a drive-by shooting at a local swimming pool. And parents, many of whom moved to this working-class suburb to get away from inner-city violence, worry about whether their children will have enough savvy and self-confidence to stay out of gangs and avoid drugs.
Someone You Can Trust addresses these concerns with the story of three lifelong teenage friends: Easy, Jamal, and Sammy. As the show opens, Sammy and Jamal are resisting Easy's overtures to join his dope-dealing gang. After a while the pressure gets nasty, with the gang-bangers mercilessly taunting Sammy. As the first act ends, Sammy, acting out of rage and humiliation, shoots Easy for calling him a coward--and then asks Jamal to take the blame.
In the second act, each character must confront different dilemmas. Should Jamal remain silent about Sammy's guilt--and true to the teenage code of loyalty--even though it means a lifetime in jail? Should Sammy confess and assume responsibility for his actions? And, in general, how should teenagers deal with peer pressure, anger, and public humiliation? The play ends on a relatively positive note, with each character making the right decision. But there are plenty of unresolved issues left over for the postshow discussion.
At the show for Lincoln's eighth-grade class, girls and boys went to separate sides of the gym for the discussion. "In general, eighth-graders are going through a rough stage," says Palidofsky. "You can see it in the way they dress, act, and talk. They have to dress alike--same shoes, pants, and shirts. God forbid anyone stand out or be different. You can't deviate; you have to be part of the group. We feel we have to separate the boys from the girls for our discussions. Otherwise, we find that the girls won't say anything, for fear of looking dumb in front of the boys."
To start the discussion with the girls, Palidofsky organizes a series of skits in which several students are forced to make difficult decisions. In one skit, Anzuelo (who plays Easy) takes Lidia Villa for a ride in his car with some of his gang-banging friends. He puts his arm around Villa, offers her a few sweet words, and then hands her a pistol and orders her to shoot a rival gang member. Villa does what she's told.
"Did you feel you had to take the gun?" Palidofsky asks.
"Yes," says Villa.
"Because [otherwise] I'd have lost my boyfriend."
"Well, what would happen to you if you really shot someone?"
"I'd go to the Audy Home."
"And would they let you keep your boyfriend there?"
Villa pauses, apparently realizing where Palidofsky's questions are leading. "No," she says with a sheepish smile.
"So did shooting the gun allow her to keep her boyfriend?" Palidofsky asks.
Villa shakes her head.
This leads into a group discussion on why girls join gangs, or seem so willing to do whatever their boyfriends demand.
"'Cause they feel alone," one girl says.
"'Cause they feel they have no life," says another. "They're afraid of being lonely."
In the next skit Jennifer Erhardt, another student, refuses to take the gun from Anzuelo. "If you want to hang with us, you have to take the gun," Anzuelo presses.
"I don't want to take it," says Erhardt.
"Then you have to get out of my car," says Anzuelo.
"OK," says Erhardt, as her classmates cheer her defiance.
"It felt great to say no," Erhardt says. "Why should I shoot someone for some guy? Why should I go to jail?"
Of course, it's easy to take a tough stand in a role-playing game. "I'd like to be optimistic," says Palidofsky. "But I'm never really sure if they're telling us what they know we want to hear or whether they truly believe it."
The group tries to reinforce the message by concluding its stay at each school with an after-school performance that's open to the community. "That's where everyone--principals, teachers, parents, and kids--comes together," says Palidofsky. "After that we go on to our next performance. But we hope we have left something good behind."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.