Two teenagers, one black, one white, reflect on their pasts from their prison cell — one shot his neighborhood bully and the other killed his friend by accident. Awaiting the sentences from a predictably biased justice system, the two piece together the shards of their fractured family dynamics to understand how they got to this place.

“Breathe,” a live social drama set in 1990s Chicago, will enact this story at UC Santa Cruz College Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room on Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. Cultural Arts and Diversity (CAD) and the sister colleges joined forces to host the production, written and directed by Javon Johnson of Congo Square Theater Company and performed by six professional Los Angeles-based actors. Johnson incorporates spoken word poetry and hip-hop and draws influence from African American playwright August Wilson.

Gun violence is the hinge to this story. The U.S. had more gun-related homicides than any other nation1,516,863 in the last 50 years on record. 2018 has already seen 11 school shootings.

“These school shootings have been happening for over a decade now and we still, at this point, have not found a way to actually deal with them,” Johnson said. The play deals with a more contained approach to family and how these kids are trying to break out of something that their parents have imposed on them and how that contributes to the choices they made.”

Johnson moves beyond the family context and explores the larger social and racial factors that affect each family’ circumstances.

CAD’s Thais Hogarth, fourth-year literature major, coordinated the production’s UCSC showing. She believes the production raises important questions about how racism has built a faulty criminal justice system.   

“The American ideal is that we treat people innocent until proven guilty,” Hogarth said. “That is an unfortunate lie. History has shown that that has never been the case.”

“Innocent until proven guilty” is the constitutional right that individuals accused of crimes aren’t guilty until a trial has determined so. Even in an everyday context, Hogarth believes that this internalized logic applies to individuals attach to the people around them.

Both families in the play fall in the middle class, but one lives in the suburbs and the other in the inner city. This geographic filter is upheld by racialized policies such as redlining, which typically impacts low-income communities and communities of color.

Johnson contextualizes the play in 1990s Chicago, a decade that saw massive growth in urban redevelopment, gentrification and prison construction.

“Some of it is a metaphor,” Johnson said. “The Black father is a construction worker so he’s spent a lot of years building projects for Black families. After his son goes to jail, he now realizes that he’s been building systemic prisons to keep the Black community in the projects.”

Through the breakdown of institutional damage, “Breathe” shines light into the roots of our culture’s dysfunction and brings the medicine to heal it.

“The importance of ‘Breathe’ is to show students that even if you consider yourself the most liberal-minded person, you need to take a step back and view where your perspectives come from,” Thais Hogarth said. “We need allies, but if allies don’t fully understand the community they’re allying with, they can be harmful.”