Troubled teens try to talk Milwaukee into a good place at First Stage

Emily Harris, Jeffrey-Thomas Snow, Kai Liebenstein and Isaih Martin in Antarctica, WI. (Photo by Paul Ruffalo)

Theater companies like The Rep and First Stage have, over the recent years, developed a laudable commitment to sparking meaningful discussion about the city around them.

I am full of admiration for the leadership of those companies for their efforts and their allocation of resources, not just words, to helping solve at least some of the problems facing Milwaukee. They believe, as do I, that art can lead this world to a better place.

The latest entrant into this panorama of relevant and significant productions is “Antarctica, WI,” a play commissioned by First Stage and written by the famed playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer.

The play he came up with and the production from First Stage goes to the many  issues that plague this community. Itś about racism and homophobia, depression, suspicious relationships with police, poverty, generational gaps all set against the rude transition of their baseball field from a vacant lot to a not vacant lot. That transition is a metaphor for the diminishing number of possibilities and opportunities for young people who live in the central city.

Director Malkia Stampley and her team of designers and a wonderful cast of seven kids and four adults mke a wonderful attempt to have teenagers explain their hopes for themselves and their communities and, in a larger sense, for the city they call home.

Mr. Kruckemeyer spent hours and hours talking with and interviewing school children, reaching into the deeper places and souls of those children. What he came up with is something that those of us who have lived here for a long time already know – solutions are a complex matter.

As a terrific Emily Harris, one of a very talented – as well as diverse –  cast of actors, says, “the outrageous is not just one thing. It’s a lot of things.”

This is a wonderful opportunity for young people to see a play that speaks their language. I can’t imagine any failure to have a meaningful discussion after a family or a bunch of friends sees this show. Seeing this play is a demanding invitation to discussion. For everybody.

But the one problem I have with Mr. Kruckmeyerś play is the same problem I have with the historic efforts at bringing the races together in Milwaukee.

Too much talk. Not enough action.

There a couple of telling lines in the play that reflect the desire to have a smooth transition to peace.

One of the kids says ¨we have to act smart, but calm because that’s what changes things.¨

And a black cop who lives in the neighborhood says, ¨itś okay to be angry but not to act angry.¨

Ms. Stampley is one of the most talented and committed artists in this city. Her familial, civic and artistic roots run deep and she shares a profound faith that the arts can heal.

For almost a half a century I have been witness to, and participant in, a myriad of efforts to improve  Milwaukee. I have led discussion groups, staged extensive public hearings into a variety of initiatives and gone deep into good and bad neighborhoods, looking for answers.

And, after that half century, all we are left with is talk, talk and more talk.

In Mr. Kruckmeyer’s play he gives each of the kids a speech to explain what it is that is putting the pressure on them. I’d rather see what it is than have them just talk about it.

Many of the initiatives that might actually make a difference in our city have also died despite all of the good will and the good words.

The problem, I am convinced, is that it is the people of good will who keep coming up with, and trying to sell, programs and initiatives that might actually make a difference. To put it in blunt, and perhaps inaccurate terms, nobody talks to the “bad” people who are at the heart of the dysfunctional systems and neighborhoods. It’s always the “good and smart” people who think they know best.

I don’t know this for certain, but I guess that Kruckmeyer was steered to the “good schools” for his discussions with kids. He didn’t go hang out on street corners and wait for drug dealers or gangbangers to drive by.

I’m not privy to the process, but I bet it went something like this.

First Stage called some schools, mostly likely schools they were familiar with. They explained what they wanted to do. The principals, or someone at the school, chose a half dozen kids. Nobody picked the kid who disrupted class every day. The kid who was angry. The kid who got suspended over other week. Nobody called the “bad” kid.

There are, of course, no “bad kids.” There is only bad behavior.

But this idea of just calming things down and talking it out goes against the history of social change in this city and country.

Going back to the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War to Open Housing in Milwaukee, nothing happened until there was violence, or at least the threat of violence.

The Black Panthers armed themselves and patrolled the streets of Oakland to protect against police violence. Thousands of “peaceniks” roared through the streets, blew up buildings and ended a war.

And here at home, Father James Groppi formed the “Milwaukee Commandos” to protect marchers who were demonstrating for equal housing in the city.

I think the same thing needs to happen in Milwaukee. Negotiations and meetings and church lectures have not, and will not work.

I’m not saying that we need to have death, but we certainly need something much more than talking.

Perhaps, as Ms. Stampley and Mr. Kruckmeyer suggest, it will be the children who will lead us.

First Stage has a motto, “Transferring Lives Through Theater.” It’s not just words for them either. They put their money where their mouth is.

Let’s hope that kids doing art can, indeed, transform lives.



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