On Wednesday, June 15, at the Pabst Theater, WUWM – Milwaukee Public Radio and 371 Productions produced Precious Lives: The Live Show. The show was an extension of the radio and podcast series Precious Lives, which has aired once a week on Milwaukee Public Radio (WUWM 89.7 FM) and WNOV 860 AM “The Voice” since January of last year.
The series, which also collaborates with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is composed of short audio stories (usually five to seven minutes long), with each episode highlighting a different story of young people who have been affected by gun violence, whether as a victim or a friend or relative of a victim. The series incorporates the voices of the actual people involved, and is narrated by 1290 WMCS-AM host Eric Von and senior producer Emily Forman.
The 90-minute performance at the Pabst featured adults and teenagers from the Milwaukee community sharing their stories about gun violence. Many of them incorporated poetry, rapping, and singing to express their personal experiences.
The show began with a few words from Reggie Moore, the recently appointed Director of Violence Prevention for the City of Milwaukee, a position Moore remarked he wish didn’t exist. Because Eric Von was unable to attend, Moore stood in as host.
The first of four acts began with three young women on stage. Moore introduced each of them before they speak. Kiran Vee, the musical director for the series, composed the background music live on stage. Two of the women were noticeably nervous, and rightfully so. Their stories are painful and difficult to share, especially in front of hundreds of people.
The show’s participants ranged in age from middle school teens to adult community organizers, including Safe & Sound youth organizer Damien Smith, Summer of Peace 365 co-founder Fidel Verdin and U.S. congressional hopeful Khary Penebaker (D-5th District). Smith spoke about his son’s trouble with the law and his work with hard-to-reach youth; Verdin spoke about Summer of Peace 365; Penebaker spoke about how his mother’s suicide influenced his entire career.
Highlights of the show included Thomas Leonard, a student at Wauwatosa West High School and spoken word artist. His speech focused not only on gun violence, but on the fears and struggles of the black community. His delivery might have been loud and confrontational, but it needed to be, given the urgency of his call to action.
Leonard was accompanied on stage by Nicole Newson, who wowed the audience with her powerful rap verses. One of her verses described how her mother would stock their freezer with popsicles. If she came home and saw that the popsicles had been eaten, she knew Nicole’s brothers were home, safe and sound. Newson’s raps incited cheers from the audience even when the source material was not particularly lighthearted. The cheers came because they couldn’t help but be impressed by this talented and insightful young woman.
Following the show, Brad Lichtenstein, president of 371 Productions and founder of Precious Lives, hosted a Q&A with questions either shouted out or tweeted by the audience. This allowed the evening’s performers to speak freely and organically about mentoring young people, getting involved, and other topics not addressed during the show.
What really stood out from Precious Lives: The Live Show is the wave of emotions the performers rode through the show. Some were brought to tears while speaking about someone they knew who was shot and killed. The unanimous, undeterred feeling conveyed by these young men and women is hope. It is the hope that sharing their stories will resonate with the city of Milwaukee and lead to a decrease in gun violence and a safer community for the future.