If you can gauge a man’s sincerity by how doggedly he returns to his core message, R. Byron Stringer is utterly focused on helping people, particularly troubled kids. Almost no question posed to him by Desert Companion failed to bend back to an expression of his desire to do so. Not a question about his 26 years as a Metro cop. Not a question about his retirement. Not a question about his early efforts as a playwright.
These days, the combination of Stringer’s police work, retirement and theater bug — which means he has firsthand experience of social problems, abundant free time and the need for a creative outlet — defines how he tries to help troubled kids: “The Toe Tag Monologues.” These are theater pieces he’s written that delve into the sometimes harrowing realities we don’t want to admit our kids deal with: drug abuse, gangs, domestic violence, suicide, sex trafficking. (Stringer says many are based on situations he encountered while on duty.) “Nothing’s off-limits,” he says. A kid named Drive-By gets shot while selling drugs. A kid named Hard-Headed kills his own sister in a gang shooting. Many of the monologues end with the kid who’s telling the story being body-bagged and wheeled away on a gurney — thus the toe-tags. Stringer and a troupe of young performers deliver the playlets wherever they can — schools (mostly middle and high schools, but some elementaries, too), churches, detention centers, youth organizations, even conventions.
“Depending on what neighborhood you come from,” he says, “you may think some of these stories are farfetched, but the truth is, these stories are happening every single day, and kids come up to us (afterward) and say, ‘That was me on the stage.’”
In the first monologue he wrote, back in 2007 — the one about Drive-By — as the kid is gurneyed away, “his last line is that he knew he had a toe-tag on a long time ago, he just never knew how to take it off.” Stringer means for the toe-tags to function symbolically, to represent the behaviors and hard social forces that limit a child’s future or funnel him or her toward a dismal end. “Some kids aren’t dying yet,” Stringer says, “but they’re walking around with toe-tags on.”
It can be hard to picture many of today’s prematurely jaded, overexposed, peer-pressured teenagers responding to such earnest messaging with anything but an eye roll and a joke about drugs. Still, Stringer ardently believes that if kids see their real, hardcore problems dramatized — in a way that doesn’t stint on the consequences but always suggests there’s hope for change, as each monologue is threaded with teachable moments — they’ll be more likely to talk to someone, seek help, get right. We’re a nation that’s trained its children to keep their problems hidden, he says, where they can do real damage. “What would our country look like if people weren’t in bondage to all the secrets that are holding them down?” And he says he gets enough feedback from young people to know he’s reaching at least some of them.
Before graduating from Rancho High School and eventually joining Metro, Stringer says he grew up in San Bernardino amid a matrix of potential toe-tag indicators: poverty, food stamps, Goodwill, Dumpster-diving — and, he adds, domestic violence. “My father hit my mother and hit us. I tell kids, I can choose to hate my father or I can choose to forgive him. And forgiveness is the beginning of you taking off your toe-tag.”
Although he didn’t take theater in high school, he developed an interest in it anyway and began writing plays in the mid-’90s when he was still on the force, “doing skits at church and in the community. Being a police officer, you’re exposed to so much, and you’re always looking for solutions to try to help people. It just came naturally to me — theater, and a message. I see everything as a play.”
According to Kim Flowers, Stringer’s manager, the 16-kid troupe took its biggest stage yet last March, performing an hour’s worth of monologues for several thousand children at a national Boys and Girls Club convention in Atlanta. “They didn’t know what to expect,” he says. As she tells it, the audience was riveted enough that most didn’t even text during the show.
“Afterward,” she says, “a girl came up to us and said that because of the monologue on snitching, she called her best friend’s father to tell him that she’s been cutting herself.” She’d realized that it wasn’t snitching, it was being a good friend to someone you care for.
“That’s what life is about,” Stringer says, “making a difference every day.”