Echaka Agba and Adhana Reid read the parts of Joy and Eva, a mother-daughter duo in the play “Southside Summer,” describing at his funeral how the character Eva’s younger brother Emmanuel was killed.
“Emmanuel loved running around the house, staring out at the world before him,” Agba said to a crowd of about 50 people at the Goodman Theatre on Wednesday night. “Every day during the summer, he’d watch the other kids play, occasionally asking me if he could go outside. Though he knew I would say, ‘No. It’s not safe. Maybe tomorrow.’”
The play goes on to describe Emmanuel and his sister playing outside on a fateful day when gunshots did ring out in the neighborhood and kids start running, ducking behind cars. In the play, Eva tells Emmanuel to run home. He listens to his sister, and is approached by a police officer who fatally shoots him.
The play, read by professional actors, was written by Englewood resident McKennzie Boyd, 16. It’s one of eight plays chosen by the #Enough: Plays to End Gun Violence project, which aims to spark conversation about gun violence through the voices of youths across the country. It’s intended to be a way to provide a glimpse into the worlds of the young writers.
Youths from grades 6 to 12 submit a 10-minute play for consideration. The selected playwrights then go through edits and readings with professional playwrights and actors, fine-tuning their work as they prepare it for staged readings across the country.
On Wednesday, actors at the Goodman Theatre performed a reading of the plays, including Boyd’s “Southside Summer” and Buffalo Grove resident Wyn Alyse Thomas’ “Write Their Wrongs.” The project also had a flagship reading Wednesday night at the Lincoln Center in New York, and several other theaters hosted readings across the country simultaneously.
The project has three goals, or as Michael Cotey, producer of the project, calls it, three acts. Act 1 is writing the plays, giving young people space on the stage to find their voice and talk about violence issues. Act 2 is the readings, where partnerships are created with theaters and theater groups nationally. Act 3 is seeing how the plays will influence people who attended the readings.
“If this project could do its job completely, it wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t have to provide this outlet,” Cotey said. “Sadly, I don’t think that day is going to come anytime soon, but in the meantime what we can do is that we can tell meaningful stories. Get people in communities across the country to gather and talk about them. And encourage people to take that into their daily life and do good in their communities.”
Cotey hopes the plays and programs “move the needle in some way” to raise awareness about gun violence and to help prevent it.
“It’s not normal but it has been woven into the fabric of what it means to grow up as a kid in this country,” Cotey said.
Boyd’s play was in part inspired by her recent move to Englewood, where initially she used to stare out her window at the other kids playing outside.
She didn’t lose her brother to a police killing, but she was at one point afraid to join the kids in her neighborhood outside. Her parents were also scared to let her venture out. And she has mourned the loss of people in her neighborhood who have been victims of gun violence.
When Boyd first moved from Calumet City to Englewood with her family three years ago, she avoided telling people where she lived because the neighborhood carried a negative connotation, she said. Everything she’d seen on the news and heard from people who talked about Englewood made her feel unsafe and ashamed, she said.
But in the last year, she’s learned to love her new neighborhood, making friends and appreciating everything the media didn’t show her about Englewood, she said.
“In the beginning it was about defying what society wanted me to believe,” she said as she learned to open up to her new home. “And then it evolved to something of: They can’t tell me that I can’t love this. This is my neighborhood. It came to be not just a house but a home.”
As she learned to love her new neighborhood, both from her own experiences and from talking to longtime residents about their experiences there, Boyd wrote the poem titled “Southside Summer.”
“It really showed me how much you don’t really know until you’re in the moment. When you have nothing to do but to face the demon head-on and call its bluff,” Boyd said. “I want people to see the beauty of my home, even with all its nooks and crannies and the cracks that people would call problems. And they don’t have to love it. I just want them to see truly what I love.
She decided to turn the poem into a play and submit it to #Enough. The reading at the Goodman Theatre was one of 66 readings in 31 cities nationwide.
Cotey, artistic producer of #Enough: Plays on Gun Violence, was in rehearsal at the Goodman Theatre on Feb. 14, 2018, when news broke that 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He and his colleagues at the theater sat with the news, discussed it for a few minutes, then got back to rehearsal, Cotey said.
He remembers thinking: “What are we doing rehearsing a play when this thing keeps happening and it can happen in the middle of a rehearsal and we just sort of get back to normal life?”
He thought the theater should be responding to mass shootings and gun violence in some way. Cotey saw the youth movements that stemmed from the Parkland shooting, young people organizing March for Our Lives protests.
Seeing those movements, it became clear to him that “what we need to do is make space for our young people to occupy our stages and tell us the stories that they want to tell,” he said.
It would take another two mass shootings in 2019 — one on Aug. 3 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where 23 people were killed, and another a day later at a bar in Dayton, Ohio, where a gunman killed nine people including his sister — for Cotey to realize he had to move forward with launching the project.
In 2020, seven plays were selected out of more than 170 submissions, Cotey said. This year, the two Chicagoland playwrights — Boyd and Thomas — were among more than 150 youths who submitted a play in the fall of 2021.
Since launching the project, Cotey has learned a lot from the young playwrights, he said.
“The more I’ve been working on this project, the more I’ve learned about how this issue impacts people in different communities in different ways,” Cotey said.
The project has also affected communities by creating partnerships between theaters in those areas and organizations working to reduce or prevent gun violence.
In Chicago, for example, the Goodman Theatre on Wednesday hosted members of Something Good in Englewood, a nonprofit group, to discuss how people in Englewood are affected by gun violence and what solutions could help.
Before the play readings, kids in sixth to eighth grade presented poems, an acrostic and a description of artwork related to gun violence in front of about 20 people.
The group also created artwork answering the question: How would your community look or feel without gun violence? Using colored pencils and clay, participants from elementary school to seniors drew kids playing on a playground, groups of people together, green grass, flowers and gardens growing.
Each of the eight plays took a different approach to examining gun violence. “It’s Okay”, written by Anya Jimenez of Brooklyn, New York, shows a grieving mother in a dream, speaking to an unknown voice, slowly realizing her 10-year-old child was killed in a shooting at her elementary school.
In “In My Sights,” written by Tain Leonard-Peck of West Tisbury, Massachusetts, the gun is the main character as it moves from its maker’s home to its new owners to the hands of a person who stole it. Once it’s used to hurt a couple, the gun starts to question whether it’s meant for protection or to cause pain.
“Salted Lemonade,” by Taylor Lafayette of Benoit, Mississippi, tells the story of an 18-year-old boy who convinces his mother to go out with friends after Thanksgiving dinner. Still mourning her late husband’s fatal shooting, Lisa, the mother, feels the only way to know her son is safe is by keeping him home.
But after her son leaves to meet with friends, a gunman shows up at Lisa’s door, threatening her and her sister. The play ends with Lisa begging the gunman for mercy, a cliffhanger as the audience never finds out whether he pulled the trigger.
That play stood out to Matthew Martinez Hannon, one of about 50 people in the audience.
“I think in a way it was the one that seemed to sort of deal with the issue the least,” Martinez Hannon said. “And yet, that sort of turn at the end where it’s like you feel like you’re safe and the place that you’ve made safe ultimately isn’t safe because the danger is encroaching on all of us whether we recognize it or not and whether we think we’re safe or not.”
Martinez Hannon said it was incredible to see how much life experiences and the youths’ ability to articulate those experiences came across in the plays, showing a “sense of maturity,” in both the subject and the structure of the pieces.
“I’m still processing it because it ended up being very impactful in a way that I didn’t expect,” Martinez Hannon said.
Wyn Alyse Thomas, 18, has written three plays about gun violence since 2018.
Thomas lived in northern Florida until she was 7 years old, when her family moved to the Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove.
She was in eighth grade when she learned that one of the students injured in the Parkland shooting was a childhood friend of hers.
Thomas wasn’t allowed to participate in school protests and walkouts with her classmates in response to the shooting. She wanted to do something to help her make sense of what she was feeling and of what was happening. So she wrote a play.
“Writing plays is what I feel gives me power to do something about this issue because it’s what I know how to do,” Thomas said. “I want to keep doing this because it’s all I know to do to help.”
In her play, “Writing Their Wrongs,” four students discuss writing something powerful enough that it will persuade lawmakers to change gun laws to help prevent more school shootings.
The four students in the piece recently experienced a school shooting of their own and their discussion gets contentious as they process what happened to them.
The character most adamant about taking action was the least affected by the shooting, hiding in a corner. Of the other characters, one witnessed the shooting, another was injured, and the third lost her brother in the shooting.
“I want people to see that it shouldn’t just be up to the survivors of these horrific events to try and change policy and change what’s going on,” Thomas said. “I think it should be up to everyone else because they should be allowed to grieve and process what’s happened to them.”
Gun violence has affected Boyd in many ways throughout her childhood, starting before she moved to Englewood.
She remembers being out with her dad and her sister shopping when her dad turned her around and pushed her and her sister toward a closet in the back of the store. People were swearing, crying and praying, she said. She was about 10 years old, and she remembers her dad telling her to stay quiet.
“And we did. For a long time, actually. And there was no one in that room that could’ve told me that it was going to be OK and I would believe them,” she said.
“Eventually the police came over and knocked on the door and it made everyone scared until he looked through the window and saw everybody cowering in this corner. Men. Women. A baby. Just afraid. We got out, we paid for our stuff and we came home.”
She has another memory, also from when she was a young girl: She and her family were at a reunion picnic. She said she remembers people suddenly screaming and running toward her up a hill at the park. She remembers her uncle tackling her and covering her, telling her to stay quiet as she tried to understand what was happening, she said.
It wasn’t until recent years, as she’s gotten older, that she realized how scary those moments were. She realizes those could have been her final moments, she said.
“I was less than 13 years old,” she said. “Kids shouldn’t have to think about that. But we do, and we have to.”