It is no secret that Baltimore has a depressingly high murder rate. For example, in 2009 Baltimore had 238 murders, and New York City had 463. However, if Baltimore had New York City’s population, that number would be a staggering 3,092.
In the fall of 2007, I began reading a weekly column called ‘Murder Ink’ in the City Paper, which is Baltimore’s alternative weekly paper. ‘Murder Ink’ is a weekly catalog of the homicides, and it includes (if known) the name, age, and race of both the victim and the alleged perpetrator, and circumstance surrounding the homicide.
In 2007, there were 282 homicides, and as I was reading ‘Murder Ink’ that fall, I was struggling to make sense of what 200+ murders for a population just over 600,000 really meant. I contacted the writer of the column, Anna Ditkoff, and asked if she’d let us do a reading of one year of her column in its entirety. Anna gave us her blessing, as long as we didn’t try to inject humor into the piece–which was far from any of our minds, but I respected how responsible she felt to the names in her column.
I thought a lot about the children’s book I’d read in elementary school called “How Much is a Million?” In the book they give many examples of what a million looks like–it is such an abstract concept. I wanted people to hear the entire year of the column so that they would be able to have a different way of understanding the 282 homicides that year.
The first reading took nearly three hours. As you listen for three hours various things happen–you really start to wonder who these people were, you start to think about the families of both the victims and the perpetrators, you start to see patterns emerge where it can feel like it’s only young black men killing other young black men, and then you start to feel bored and then you feel guilty for feeling bored.
We have now done readings of ‘Murder Ink’ for four years, and always in the first week of January. Two years it happened at Theatre Project, but we were struggling to bring in a diverse audience. The third year, which was the second year I directed the reading, we performed it on North Avenue outside of Single Carrot Theatre, underneath rented space heaters. It was the most successful reading, because these homicides are much easier to understand when you’re not sitting in a theatre. That was the first year I asked for audience members to come up and read sections of the year.
In 2011, we had the reading inside Single Carrot because we did not have the budget to rent heaters. However, the play I had directed, The Other Shore, was running, and that production was lit entirely with candles, so we decided to have a candle light vigil–starting with one candle, we lit up the entire room by the end with 223 candles.
Each year we have a discussion following the reading. The questions are often the same–why is it this way? What do we do now? Is there even anything we can do? Why aren’t more people here? Why don’t we have this dialogue with the entire City?