Crime and punishment for teenagersby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
A 13-year-old kid drops a rock off a bridge on a highway overpass. The rock hits an oncoming car, killing the driver. Ask yourself -- is the teen guilty of murder? And if so, how should he be punished? A play at the Children's Theater Company in Minneapolis is asking these questions of teen audiences, and getting some surprising answers.
Minneapolis, Minn. — At the end of an afternoon of vandalism, two teenagers end up on a bridge, kicking stones -- big stones -- at oncoming traffic down below. They whoop and holler as the rocks drop, until one smashes through a car windshield. The stone kills the driver.
As the play continues, Australian actors Stefo Nantsou and Tom Lycos use two electric guitars, two sawhorses and a ladder to set the scenes as they switch roles from youth, to cop, to mother to school headmaster.
They perform acrobatic feats, dive into the audience, play guitar loudly and swear profusely throughout the show. The high energy, drama, foul language and humor sucks in the teenage audience.
Based on a true story, the two kids are eventually tried in adult court, before a jury. But even the cops investigating the case can't agree on a verdict.
For one group of teenagers in the audience, the play really hits home. They're residents of the Hennepin County Home School, a state residential treatment center for juveniles who have committed major property offenses and crimes against persons.
Legally we can't identify them, so we're using their middle names for this report. Eugene says he related to the characters in the play.
"It made me look back at some things," he says. "Like when I was younger -- 'cause I threw a rock off a bridge on an overpass at an exitway, and hit somebody's car, too. But it didn't hit him, it just broke his window."
Eugene says the driver got out and chased him, but he didn't get caught -- that time.
At the end of the play, the two boys are acquitted, and set free. Eugene thinks they're actually guilty, but he doesn't think they should go to jail with adults. And he noticed he never saw the kids' fathers in the entire play.
"They say that 70 to 80 percent of young males that grow up without their fathers tend to get into more trouble than people who grow up with their fathers," Eugene says. "I think that's a big deal because I grew up without my dad, too. So I think it plays a big role, living without both your parents."
When the teen audience was asked to vote whether or not they thought the kids were guilty, they were split almost equally into three groups -- guilty, not guilty, and undecided.
Joseph says he looked around at the other kids in the audience -- kids who haven't ever been arrested, and don't know what it's like to get in serious trouble. He wonders if they really got the message of the play.
"Some people don't understand how valuable your freedom is to you, and how a stupid little action like throwing a rock off a bridge can jeopardize it," Joseph says. "Then when they get caught they look at it like, 'Damn! Why did I do this?' And then they want to sit and reflect on what they had done, when in the first place they probably shouldn't have done it."
Joseph agrees that the kids in the play are definitely responsible for their actions. But at their age, he thinks it's more important to try rehabilition than punishment.
"Everybody makes mistakes, but it's how you look at mistakes to fix it, you know what I'm saying?" Joseph says. "If you keep making the same mistake over and over, then you're not learning from it. But if you can learn from your mistake and become a better person from it, then yeah, it's worth it."
Another person in the audience is Barb Cook, a senior volunteer coordinator for Hennepin County Home School.
Cook says she thinks "The Stones" does a good job of presenting the complexity of juvenile justice. And she says at a time when many Minnesota kids are facing adult sentences for their crimes, it's important that people look at all sides of the issue.
"I hope they can still see the fact that when people get in trouble when they're young, they're still changeable and they can learn from their mistakes, and they're not just throwaways," she says.
Cook has worked for the Hennepin County Home School for 30 years. She says she's seen kids make incredible changes for the better.
Actor Stefo Nantsou says that's why he and actor Tom Lycos have taken this show on tour to teen audiences.
"We try and pitch our shows to that age group specifically, to try and intervene with all the crap that's on television, with all the crap that's in the newspaper, and all the crap that's out there in society," Nantsou says. "We try and look at things in a different way, and hopefully make people think about things a little bit more than just black and white, good and evil."
"The Stones" runs at Children's Theatre Company through March 9. Actors Tom Lycos and Stefo Nantsou will give their 1000th performance of the show on Saturday March 8.