At last week’s performance of A Day at Stateville, I saw another version of what I had seen at the first performance. The former inmates who read the script connected with it, and gave it authenticity – and authority – at a level that was quite astonishing to me as a theater professional.  I could not have guessed a few months ago that a theatrical event comprising “cold readings” by “novice” performers of “novice” text could be so amazingly compelling.

Here is some of what I saw:

The room was full to overflowing, with perhaps 200 people in and around the event, the great majority under the age of 25.

The audience gave the performers rapt attention. They quieted one another, straining to hear the words (which were, in general, audible and clear).

What made this play so riveting, of course, is the authenticity of the experiences of these former inmates, and the authenticity of the voices of the men whose script they read – framed in the moment of performance by the “text” of the readers’ own life stories.

At last week’s event, as at the first performance, the subsequent discussion was (in my experience, more than usually) creative, forward-looking, energetic, even passionate, and with an exhilarating sense of eyes-on-the-prize practicality.

That this performance can precipitate action-oriented community discussion and organizing is now a proven fact. Hopefully, at some time in the future, when someone asks, “What can I do?” we will be able to answer, “Sign up at that table, take that literature, or come to this meeting of this community organization or coalition.”

Speaking personally, my own understanding of one way that progressive social change may “work” in 21st–Century Chicago was deepened by the order of magnitude, as I saw, the “fact” of neighborhood organizing in oppressed communities, with youthful leadership informed by the notion that “it takes a village to raise a child.” I hadn’t understood the “fact” that organizing and the political power of that philosophy in contemporary terms until that meeting.

Steve Grossman is a communications skills instructor and coach with the Still Point Theater.