Free Street youth debate on stage: All lives matter or no lives matter

"Track 13" performance
Patrick C. Blanton, 17, dies repeatedly as Deonta Mackey over the course of the play. “It’s the repetition that matters,” says Eliseo Real’s character. (Sarah Hasanh, Free Street Theater)

By Kate Morrissey

One year ago Tuesday, Deonta Mackey was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in the Pullman neighborhood when he tried to rob the officer at gunpoint at a gas station.

“Track 13,” a play created by a youth ensemble composed of members from the Young Fugitives ensemble and members from the youth ensemble at Free Street Theater, uses Mackey’s death as a jumping off point to explore different perspectives about young people of color and their struggle with police violence in Chicago.

“We’re not the first people to do a play about police brutality or Chicago youth violence,” said Ricardo Gamboa, director of the Young Fugitives. “The difference is we’re one of the only places where the people presenting those issues are the people affected by it and allowed to represent themselves.”

"Track 13" performance
Cast members Chad Roby, 19, Eliseo Real, 19, Alfonzo Smith, 18, Elijah Ruiz, 18, Julissa Garcia, 19, and Erick McCree, 18, begin “Track 13” with movement before breaking into an argument. (Sarah Hasanh/Free Street Theater)

The play begins with movement alone, portraying Mackey’s death on repeat to a montage of music that ranges from a remix of Mackey’s mother’s interview after his death to a version of “Yankee Doodle.” Then the play breaks.

Patrick C. Blanton, 17, who plays Mackey, drops character to begin an argument with the other cast members about the ethics of reenacting Mackey’s death. They, too, take on versions of themselves, bringing heightened emotions to the debate that continues for most of the play.

“We were running into a lot of road blocks in the physical work that couldn’t account for the conversations that we were having,” Gamboa said, explaining that the original shape of the play was entirely physical. “So much of the script is verbatim what the conversation was in rehearsal.”

At one point in the play the characters argue about whether it’s fair to focus the conversation on the violence in black communities or whether others, like the Latino community, should be included.

All or Nothing?

“One of the things that ‘Track 13’ does is raise questions about both of these racialized, urban, marginalized populations,” said Coya Paz, the artistic director for Free Street. “One of the things that kept coming up was that Latinos would say, ‘We live in neighborhoods where there is a lot of gun violence, too,’ and the African-Americans were saying, ‘Can we just talk about black lives? Do we always have to be a coalition about it?’”

The characters do not offer a conclusion to the questions but rather emphasize the need for more conversation.

“It’s either all lives matter or no one matters at all,” said Chad Roby, 19, a cast member. “We’re all going to get born, we’re going to live and we’re going to die eventually.”

“I guess it’s knowing how they made us feel that hopeless, why we made Black Lives Matter, recognizing what made that,” said Elijah Ruiz, 18, another cast member. “I feel like that’s the conversation we should be having.”

Elijah Real of Free Street Theater
Elijah Ruiz, 18, performs a song from Free Street Theater’s “Nerd, Sluts, (Commies) and Jocks” at a fundraiser on Wednesday. (Kate Morrissey/Medill)

This piece of the debate represents only one of the many facets covered in “Track 13.” The play layers perspectives into a web of complexities that offers no easy conclusion.

“It’s a play that opens up a lot of conversation and resonates with people who are feeling hopeless and confused about how to proceed,” Paz said.

Most of the cast members agreed that they hoped to make the audience think and perhaps make even small changes in the choices of daily life.

“Even if it’s sitting next to someone on the bus who’s a different color than you instead of standing,” said Julissa Garcia, a 19-year-old cast member.

For Erick McCree, 18, the goal was all about awareness.

“What I want people to take away from this is just knowing somebody died here,” McCree said. “It could have been one of us, or anybody, and it’s just not OK. I want people to get rid of that mentality.”

The actors will perform “Track 13” once more this season on Friday at Free Street’s Pulaski Park location.

Free Street Theater’s Rebirth

Since the abrupt departure of several administrative staff at Free Street Theater in 2011, the organization has reenergized under new leadership to build a community space and produce a multitude of ensemble-driven performances at both its Pulaski Park and Little Village locations, as well as street shows in parks across Chicago during the summer, according to Paz.

Paz and Caroline O’Boyle, the new executive director, have worked to return to the theater’s roots since taking over about two years ago, which they said, for them, means theater access for all.

“The reality is that you can make a play on a street corner,” Paz said. “It’s a really accessible art form or at least has the potential to be.”

Coya Paz of Free Street Theater
Coya Paz, Free Street’s artistic director, serves as a microphone stand for a performance of “L is for Love” at a fundraiser on Wednesday. (Kate Morrissey/Medill)

Together they’ve instituted new programs like baby sitters for shows and new policies like a pay-what-you-can model from $1 to $1 million so that no one is blocked from participating because of situation in life.

“The notion of what’s affordable really depends on your economic circumstances,” Paz said. “I don’t want having to come up with $10 or $15 to be a barrier to going to see a play that is probably about you. ‘Track 13’ is talking very specifically about violence in and against low-income people in black and brown communities in Chicago. If I put a $15 price ticket on that, that would be ridiculous.”

Free Street was founded in 1969 by Patrick Henry, and, according to Paz, it was the first racially integrated theater company in Chicago.

Free Street ensemble 1972
Coya Paz, Free Street’s artistic director, said that this photograph of the Free Street Theater ensemble, taken in 1972, illustrates how diverse the ensemble has been since the beginning. (Kate Morrissey/Medill)

Ron Bieganski, who worked as the artistic director for Free Street for decades and worked under Henry prior to that, said he remembered riding his yellow bike through the Cabrini Green public housing development, the group’s base early in his time there.

“We were going around to neighborhoods all summer long and doing street shows, and then turning to people and saying, ‘We don’t want you to join us,’ ” Bieganski said. “Then we said, ‘We want you to do this yourself. We’ll work with you and teach you how to create theater, but then we want you to do it yourself.’ ”

Paz and O’Boyle have preserved that essence by continuing to do street shows in the summer and welcoming other groups to use their space. The Young Fugitives, who collaborated with a couple of Free Street’s ensemble members to create “Track 13,” particularly hold to the values Bieganski described.

The Young Fugitives Find a Home

Gamboa, director of “Track 13,” explained that the Young Fugitives formed as part of his work as an artist in residence at the National Museum of Mexican Art. When some of their content criticized Chicago’s mayor to the point that they worried about retaining funding, Gamboa moved the group to Free Street, where it now has a permanent residence.

“With the Young Fugitives, the goal is ultimately to create an ensemble that can run itself, that may want to hire me to be a director for a project or may want to hire somebody else,” Gamboa said.

While “Track 13” will wrap up this week, Free Street Theater has two more productions, “Bang!” at the Pulaski Park location and “Monsters, Mutants & Migrants” at the Little Village location, planned for the spring.

Photo at top: Patrick C. Blanton, 17, dies repeatedly as Deonta Mackey over the course of the play. “It’s the repetition that matters,” says Eliseo Real’s character. (Sarah Hasanh/Free Street Theater)