“The new blood-soaked theatrics of that old-time religion splatter Benjamin Ortiz.”
A young Latin loco, sagging x-large, steps with attitude up to the local rock dealer. Recognizing his customer, the dopeman pulls a sack from his pocket and shakes it like a dinner bell. “My man, Joker,” he croons, “look what I saved for you special.” Joker strikes a defiant pose as his homeboy creeps up behind with a drawn shotgun. “Your crew blasted my boy the other night,” Joker snarls. “It’s payback time, punk!” BOO-YA!

The shotgun explodes, dusting the dopeman. The audience breaks out in screams, cheers, killer thrills. Joker runs off, right when Satan and his black-robed minions arrive to haul the fresh soul away. “Help me, Jesus, forgive my sins! Aiiiieeeee!” dopeman howls. “TOO LATE!” someone in the audience roars, and the crowd busts up laughing.
Just another day in the ‘hood? More like a taste of “Inner City Madness,” a performance staged last Friday night by Victory Outreach ministries, a Humboldt Park Pentecostal group. Passing through a metal detector at the Kelvyn Park High auditorium, I notice that the boyz working security are all ex-bangers and knuckle-heads turned Christian. Homeboy waves me through, and I spot the placazo (tattoo) between thumb and index finger. The crowd of mostly Latino and African-American teens fills the 1,300-seat venue beyond capacity. An R&B combo on stage wails holy hype, and many respond with singing and clapping. After a call for prayer, ministers take the mic and shout out tales of prostitution, drug addiction, gang-banging, broken families, and hopelessness: “I tried everything – PCP, marijuana, heroin, LSD – but I was lost until I found the Lord.” Cheers, hands lift to the heavens in praise. A Christian hip-hop set bombs the bass. “God’s the original ‘G’! Jesus Christ in tha houuuuuuse!” Two youngsters belt out a flow of street knowledge about the saving powers of Christ, and the divine fly-girls rip it up.
Then the play starts: BOOM! opens a cycle of violence and addiction, spiced with real weapons discharging blanks, building to a Tarantino-esque standoff between enemy thugs. When a minister breaks the tension with a Bible thrown between gun barrels, the gangs finally submit to the Gospel. Laura P. Sánchez of Victory Outreach says the play’s goal is “to revive hope through Jesus as Savior.” But doesn’t the spectacle appeal to violent emotions with its depiction of gunplay? “You have to relate to the crowd by going to their level,” she answers. The audience whoops as Satan carts away more freshly buckshot ghosts.
I leave with permanent hearing damage. But the voice of one character echoes in my mind: “What do you want, preacher? I can’t read or write! All I know is the gun!” And I wonder if anyone else noticed that Jesus never appeared to answer that question.
—by Benjamin Ortiz
NewCity 9 November 1995

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