By Eric Shoemaker
“Our young people are telling the stories of their lives on their bodies,” Dr. Doriane Miller says from the unassuming podium on eta Creative Arts Foundation’s stage. Backgrounded by stained glass created for eta’s upcoming production of James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner,” Miller speaks with the authority of a concerned and committed community member about the post-traumatic-stress-disorder symptoms she finds in her patients in the South Side community where she works. Some of the youth she treats, as young as fourteen, have been in the midst of gun battles or have lost siblings to violence and then forever emblazon their memory in tattoos covering their bodies. Dr. Miller’s words resonate with her audience of community leaders and get many nods throughout the speech, especially for lamenting, “Chicago is the number one capital in the country for teen violence.”
Dr. Miller is being honored for her community work with teens over the past year, culminating in a production at eta and surrounding high schools of her play, “It Shoudda Been Me,” which is inspired by the work she does. Previously, her experience with the stage ended at the footlights: “I never imagined becoming a playwright,” she says. But when she encountered these young people with scarred minds and memorialized bodies, she had to find an outlet to inform the public. “Exposure to gun violence or becoming a victim of gun violence is far too frequent in communities on the South and West Sides of Chicago,” she says. “My play is built from the stories of my patients… Many of my patients deny the emotional and psychological impact that gun violence has had on their lives. But their physical symptoms of depression, unexplained stomachaches, difficulty sleeping, increased drug or alcohol use, demonstrate that they are trying to find ways to cope with the trauma of gun violence.” She then produced the play with eta and has been offering counseling to the youth who see it.
Theater as therapy is a phrase many professionals use, scathingly or not, to describe the emotionally draining and cathartic effect of stage work. Dr. Miller’s employment of theatrical methods to release emotion and expose the violence embedded in the lives of South Siders is being honored by the forty-two-year-old community center along with four others, including Tio Hardiman, director of the gun-violence interrupter program CeaseFire Illinois. eta president Phillip Thomas introduces the honorees in terms of eta’s involvement in the community. “We keep prices low to let all in our community share the art,” Thomas says.
“The partnership and the production opened up the possibilities of using our work to initiate community dialogue and influence social change in a direct way,” Thomas says. “We have known for some time that the plays we mount on our stage resonate with our audience… we select honorees to highlight, applaud, lift up the work of people we think should be recognized for doing exemplary work in the community. This year’s theme ‘Reclaiming Community’ is especially significant given the turmoil currently going on in many of our neighborhoods… the honorees are all people who took the initiative to tackle significant community issues on their own, not simply lamenting the problems, but actively planning and implementing solutions that we think are the way forward for our community.”
The power of art to transform individuals shines brightly from eta, Dr. Miller says. “Young people are starting to talk about it more and are also starting to realize that there are caring adults in their community who can help them navigate these treacherous times. There is so much work to be done to spread this in our community,” she urges. Her advice to others interested in activism: “Get involved with the conversation, mentor a young person in your community, support a young person’s efforts in school, through your faith community. You may be able to stop a second episode of violence just by being involved.”
Eta Creative Arts Foundation, etacreativearts.org