The Power of Story and “How Long Will I Cry?”: Guest Post by Lisa Applegate

Over the past few years, many of our DePaul English Graduate students have been involved in an ongoing oral history project, collecting stories of youth violence from those affected by it throughout Chicago. Lisa Applegate (MAWP) is one of those students, having participated in Miles Harvey’s Oral History class as well as an Independent Study on the project. Last month, a play comprised of a few of the stories collected for this project titled “How Long Will I Cry?:Voices of Youth Violence” debuted at the Steppenwolf Theater, and Lisa was one of the first to see a performance (for more information about the play, see this previous post on Ex Libris). The following is a special guest post Lisa wrote about her experience working on this project after watching the play. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Lisa.

It didn’t take long to feel it, maybe a few minutes after the lights dimmed. Up there on stage I saw Joy, Frankie, Ora, Jaime. I heard their words again, heard them recount their memories again, and I felt that tightness in my throat, again. These were people I felt I knew, and I almost couldn’t bear hearing about their pain again. But I did, and so did the rest of the audience, because we all knew how important these words were, to our city and to the youth who were no longer able to speak for themselves.

I watched “How Long Will I Cry,” written by Professor Miles Harvey and currently showing at Steppenwolf Theatre, and realized two things. First, I was proud of the collective effort that created such a powerful piece of storytelling. Like many of you, I had the honor of contributing a small part to Prof. Harvey’s project, which involved dozens of students and more than seventy interviews. We all spent hours transcribing those interviews, arranging them into narratives, editing the finished work. At first, I couldn’t fathom how these many stories — gathered from young and old, parents and siblings, gang members and healers all across Chicago — could coalesce into a coherent work. They did, beautifully, in both the play and an upcoming book to be published by DePaul.

When I first moved to Chicago eight summers ago, I remember being shocked at how complacent residents seemed about the numbers of young people dying by violence — the highest in the country. But after week upon week of headlines, I, too, became desensitized, feeling powerless to make any difference. Prof. Harvey’s project, and the support of DePaul in general, revived my anger and gave me an outlet to at least help raise awareness about what so many of our neighbors suffer through.

Which leads me to the other thing I learned watching “How Long”: the power of story. I know, it’s an oft-used phrase in our program, but I had never experienced the power at such a deep level. As a writer, I have interviewed many people and a few have stayed with me, but not like this. I got to transcribe the interviews with Joy McCormack, the mother of former DePaul student Frankie Valencia, who was killed at a 2009 Halloween party. I will never forget her description of waiting for hours at the hospital and finally getting to see her firstborn, only to find him cold and the sheets soaked with blood. I got to read many other transcriptions and still recall the details of their lives — the boy who hid his gun under his bed so his young siblings couldn’t find it, the girl who spoke encouraging words to herself because she didn’t have any role models to say them for her. It took time for these details to emerge — these were two, three, four hours’ worth of recordings — and that’s what makes their stories so compelling. Through the details of their unique experiences, I gained a level of empathy I couldn’t have in any news story or sound bite. I brought friends with me to see “How Long,” and they agreed: They thought they understood what was happening in Chicago’s neighborhoods, they thought they were angry about the senseless deaths, but the play took it all to another level.

After being involved in this project, I no longer skip the headlines when a young person has been killed due to violence. Every time, as I read the story to its end, my throat tightens and I swallow tears. I have never actually lost a loved one to violence, and I would never claim to fully comprehend such devastation. But I still consider myself a member of this vast family of Chicagoans who ache for these killings to end. I am one of them because I care, even about people I don’t actually know. People like Joy and Frankie, Ora and Jaime. And that is the power of story.

Do you have an idea for the next Ex Libris guest post? Email Maria at mhlohows@depaul.edu.

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