Reality Theater

Jane Fentress

The Chicago Police department reported 118 homicides between January and March of this year, a startling 35% increase compared with statistics from the same period last year. In response to this increase, the CPD initiated personnel changes, promoting five new district commanders. This action, coupled with the city’s implementation of new strategies to combat gang violence, is testament to the fact that these sorts of statistical findings are not without political consequences.

But these findings also have less quantifiable effects within communities. Tensions and fears mount as the specter of gun violence grows increasingly menacing. These visceral threats call for a different, more expressive kind of response. Through its characters, “Tangled,” the latest production at eta Creative Arts, encourages audience members to consider the role of the individual in dealing with an atmosphere of violence. The work is the second in a three-part series of plays running at eta under the banner “Reclaiming Community.”  The play aims to demonstrate the degree to which fear and uncertainty impact everyday life in communities under the constant threat of gun violence.

The play opens with one of the protagonists at a bar, reminiscing with an old friend and negotiating the friendly advances of another male acquaintance. As she struts into work the next morning, giddy with the prospect of a new romantic interest, she is met with the news that the old friend has been fatally shot in her home.

Clo, the bereaved main character, coincidentally runs the funeral home that has been in her family for three generations. Even though she and her two sisters are in direct contact with the consequences of gun violence as part of their profession, each finds her own way of coping. Clo, who is normally less than sympathetic toward the deaths she encounters on a day-to-day basis, loses control when she learns the news about her old friend.

“Tangled” situates its drama in the throes of daily life. Nestled between a night out and just another day at work, a shooting becomes almost a matter of course. The set is dressed like a familiar home. The lowest level of the stage juts out into the audience. On Clo’s nightly walk home, she glides within reach of patrons in the front row. The dramatic sphere intrudes into the audience experience–indicating that the play is meant not only as a representation of community, but as part and parcel of the very community in which it is performed.

“It is thrilling to have an opportunity to produce a play about the intersections of gun violence, community trauma, and personal demons–fairly weighty topics–in my community, where the issue really resonates,” said the playwright, Nicole Anderson-Cobb.

After Thursday’s performance, eta kicked off its new “Talkback” series, an initiative which brings community leaders to the venue to moderate a discussion about the issues raised by the piece. At this showing of “Tangled,” the speaker was Mary Mitchell, a correspondent and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. The majority of the audience stayed for the event, to share their own experiences as they relate to the play, which resonated deeply with their own perceptions of the community. The discussion continued for over an hour. As microphones were passed around the room, audience members spoke with fervor on subjects ranging from community fear and parenting to accountability and blame. The shockingly familiar situations depicted in the play gave the event a sense of urgency. Audience members were activated as they worked out, in their own words, what a community coping with the threat of gun violence looks like in the present, and what it could look like in the future.