Free Street Theater has its offices and rehearsal space on the third floor of the community building in Pulaski Park, just west of the Kennedy between Division and North avenues. The timbered brick building feels like a cross between a country club and the state penitentiary. A big veranda stretches around the south courtyard, but it's fenced in. There are some shade trees and a wide lawn perfect for baseball or soccer, but it's muddy and strewn with glass.
Most of the 12 members of the TeenStreet program can't use the park. Not because their mothers forbid them to. Not because the company's director, Ron Bieganski, would prefer they memorize their lines instead of playing ball. Most of the members of TeenStreet can't go there because they're black, and the south lawn of Pulaski Park is controlled by Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.
"The Puerto Ricans don't like the black people," says Momo Owens, a TeenStreet member who lives near the park. "So every now and then they stand down the fire lane [a lane on Milwaukee Avenue reserved for fire trucks]. They will stand across the street and shoot at us."
Joshua Medley, who also lives nearby, says, "If we came to this park every day, I swear to God, by the end of the week they would have it set up so that when we come out, they will be shooting at us, or fighting." But Medley also notes that if the Hispanics cross the border at Milwaukee and Division into his neighborhood, "They're either going to have to fight with us or turn around and go back where they came from."
Twice a week the members of TeenStreet do cross those lines, coming from neighborhoods all over Chicago. They take the risk because TeenStreet provides something that high school drama programs don't.
"Free Street lets you do what you want. They're not into controlling you," says Valentina Gamboa, the only Hispanic of the group. "In our high school we wrote a play. We just wanted to write a play about life, you know. We had the script ready and everything. But then a new teacher came in and--nothing against her, but she wanted to do A Christmas Carol. No one was interested. Most of them stopped coming even."
Furthermore, members of TeenStreet get paid $5 an hour for rehearsal time and $125 a week once the show goes into production. It's their responsibility. And for most of them, working around the threat of violence is simply nothing new. "The places I've been and the places I've seen--you have no choice but to get used to it. If you're scared, then you must want to die. I got to the point where a gunshot was just a gunshot," says Lamar McCoy.
McCoy loses his tough-guy veneer, however, once he starts performing. In a scene called "Zen Space," he recites a text he wrote himself: "Heaven is a place where I don't have to be scared. Where I can walk the streets freely. And in this heaven I can go anywhere and wear anything without being looked at in a deep stare. In this heaven there will be no guns to shoot me with and no thieves to steal my belongings. When I'm in this heaven, there will be no one there but my friends, my family, and my neighbors. When we are there, we will be safe, because there is no safer place."
Onstage these kids recite poetry, written by resident poet Ama Apau. They play the drums and dance. They sing about their own experiences, their own view of the world. It's hard to say exactly what kind of theater this is, but it's something they couldn't do anywhere else. One scene is performed almost entirely in the dark, except for a glowing lamp that swings dangerously close to their faces as they begin a mesmerizing chant: "Black . . . like the world outside. Hard . . . like solidified lava. Loud . . . like the voice inside. Cold . . . like the air underneath." Above the chant cast members recite, "Souls stumbling into pools of hatred and ignorance . . . spat out by a mad god, crushing and powdering hope and optimism . . . the voices inside, screaming, constantly, wailing for the answers unknown . . . the air underneath, silently whistling from the charred lungs of a troubled youth."
Though the overall message of Standing Out in a Drive-by World is positive, it's presented candidly, without apologies or sugar coatings.
"People put down teenagers so much," says Carla Dames. "They think we're lazy and bad and troublemakers. That all we know how to do is have sex and do drugs. [Standing Out] is just throwing it right back in their faces. It's like saying, You can go to hell."
But beneath their tough shells, the kids harbor a simple hope that they might be noticed. As Owens told his fellow TeenStreeters, "If we're doing this show, I'm telling you, somebody is going to be out there watching. Somebody is listening. You never know who's seeing you."
TeenStreet will perform Standing Out in a Drive-by World at Pulaski Park, 1419 W. Blackhawk, Friday at 7 and Saturday at 3. They'll take it to Link's Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield, Saturday, May 22, at 3 and Sunday, May 23, at 7. And then they'll be at the Boulevard Arts Center, 6011 S. Justine, Friday and Saturday, June 4 and 5, at 7. Tickets for all shows are $6; call 772-7248 for information.