By Patrick Z. McGavin | For the Sun-Times
Growing up in Englewood the actor Eric Lane saw violence up close. “I witnessed my mother shoot somebody,” he said.
Acting was Lane’s preferred outlet and his sanctuary from the difficulties of a chaotic and unorthodox childhood that included time at a foster home. In 1998 he auditioned for a film by a young Oak Park filmmaker named Bill Pierce that launched their professional relationship.
When Pierce approached him about developing a new television series examining the emotional, personal and social costs of violence, Lane seized the opportunity.
The filmmakers and actors of the new locally produced independent series, “Chi-raq,” are offering a preview Sunday night at the Studio Movie Grill (210 W. 87th St.) with screenings at 5 and 6:30 p.m. of the pilot episode. They are also showing selected footage from the second and third episodes. Tickets to the event are $10.
“I came up with the idea in 2001,” Pierce said. “It was like putting together a puzzle, I was trying to get all of the pieces together, the funding and the creative people. That finally happened last year.
I just knew we needed a Chicago show like ‘The Wire,’ something gritty, tough and also very cinematic.”
“Chi-raq” is an eight-episode opening season storyline centering on Marshawn (Lane), the leader of a notorious South Side gang who is returning to his neighborhood after an eight-year prison stint. “The story is about redemption,” said Lawrence Lee Wallace, who directed the first two episodes. “He’s reformed, and he starts a mission to help the young men and women to move away from a life of crime, guns, drugs and other criminal activities.”
The series has a classic theme of the fallen man who tries to find salvation, and the conflicts and difficulties Marshawn experiences trying to reconcile his new directive with the allure of his past lifestyle. His personal story is framed against rival South and West Side gangs.
“We wanted to do a show that depicts Chicago,” Lane said. “Everybody hears about the violence here from all over the world. There’s a good side to Chicago. We want to do a show that realistically explores the reasons this is happening.”
Chicago is not just a backdrop though an intrinsic part of the show, the creators said. The production shot the first three episodes in the fall before taking a winter hiatus. The filmmakers utilized locations in Grand Crossing, Roseland, North Lawndale and west suburban Westchester.
“Bill was born on the West Side and I was born on the South Side, and a lot of the show is based on our personal experiences,” Wallace said. “We’ve both had family members who have been in gangs, in jail or in some cases, have even been killed. We wanted this to have a realistic and honest look.”
Pierce insists the material is not sensationalistic or exploitative or trafficking in negative stereotypes. “What we’re trying to do is show the problems and offer solutions,” he said. “Part of the storyline is about education and offering solutions for how people get out of this rut and cycle of violence.”
Production is scheduled to resume in April. The broadcast premiere is set for May on the Tinley Park-based independent network WJYS. Pierce said forthcoming shows roam across the city and incorporate location shoots encompassing Austin, Englewood and Rogers Park. The 18-member ensemble cast and crew are drawn from Chicago theater and local production communities.
“We’re promoting Chicago stars. ‘Empire’ shot here for the tax break, but it’s not a Chicago story. This is an all Chicago story,” Pierce said.
Patrick Z. McGavin is a local freelance writer.