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Mass Shootings on Stage: Healing or Titillating?

The mass shooting on Valentine’s Day at a Florida high school is the latest in a long line of school shootings, some of which are instantly identifiable: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook.

Each of these has been the subject of plays, as have some of the other most notorious mass shootings in the United States.

Other dramas about shooters or shootings don’t dramatize specific events, but take their inspiration from what one can call, horribly, the trend.

Below are some examples — the good, the bad and the ugly — and they pose a question. As I put it in the title of a piece I wrote for HowlRound in 2015:  Violence on Stage: Healing or Titillating?   Enlightening…or exploitative?

 

Noah Robbins as the bullied Chadwick with Will Pullen in Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock, MCC Theater, 2014

Several years before Simon Stephens adapted “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” for the stage, the playwright wrote the far more in-your-face “Punk Rock,” about a group of troubled English private school students. It was originally produced in London in 2009, and made Tom Sturridge a star, and was presented Off-Broadway at MCC in 2014.  Shy, curly-haired William is in one of the school’s little-used libraries, introducing new student Lilly  to the ways of the school and to the other five students as one by one they enter this isolated room in the school that serves as their hangout before, after, and in-between classes. Bennett  emerges as a bully of the worst sort, with a hint that he is overcompensating for a secret attraction to men. But it’s William who turns out to be the mass shooter.

The MCC production of “Punk Rock” was undeniably riveting, but, like many theatrical depictions of school violence, one was not left with any deeper understanding, nor even a fuller embrace of the seriousness of the phenomenon.

Office Hour , a play by Julia Cho that was presented at the Public Theater last year, struck me as directly inspired by the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007, where Cho Seung-Hui, an English major, aspiring writer and South Korean immigrant, killed 32 people. The play focuses on a character named Dennis, an Asian-American immigrant student and aspiring writer. Warned by her colleagues that he’s troubled, his teacher Gina invites him to see her during her office hour. Within a few minutes of his arrival, Dennis takes out a gun and shoots Gina dead. But then there is a blackout, and when the lights come back on, they are back to talking as before – or, more precisely, Gina is back to talking and Dennis to ignoring her. There are variations of this meta-theatrical shooting later in the play. The playwright doesn’t seem to be seriously exploring  a terrifying national trend so much as capitalizing on it.

As it turns out, with the exception of the shooting and some later variations of it, as well as other similarly self-consciously theatrical touches, “Office Hour” follows the standard teacher-student formula, of a student slowly opening up to a teacher. What he says is not especially credible, and even less enlightening.

In “26 Pebbles,” playwright Eric Ulloa offered a documentary approach, similar to The Laramie Project, in his depiction of the 2012 killings of 26 people, including 20 six and seven-year-olds, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He interviewed some 60 members of the community in which the school was located, Newtown, Connecticut – none of them survivors or victims’ family members. In the play, six actors portray 22 of these real-life characters. There were readings of the play presented at Goodspeed in Connecticut and New York, but the first full production took place at Human Race Theatre in Dayton, Ohio in 2017.

Similarly, “columbinus”  by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, was based on interviews with the people of the community in Colorado where two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in April, 1999. But, unlike “28 Pebbles,” it interviewed survivors and parents, as well as community leaders in Littleton, and included diaries and home video, in order to create a drama that was part documentary and part fictionalized.  “columbinus” premiered in Maryland in 2005, and was presented at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2006. “The play exudes earnestness — and a measure of self-importance, in truth — as it presents an anonymous portrait of high school life, with all its anxiety and sweaty unease, in the fictionalized first act, before focusing in detail on the grisly events at Columbine in the second,” Charles Isherwood wrote in his review. The phenomenon of the mass shooting, he concluded, “is one that neither journalism nor theater can analyze with satisfaction.”

In his foreword to the play, P.J. Paparelli wrote “I always thought this piece would be an answer  to the notorious question: Why?….I was afraid we would never find an answer….”

“Mother Emanuel” , which was presented as part of the New York International Fringe Festival in 2016, celebrated the lives of the nine people who were shot dead at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. It is a sad story but it was told in a deeply entertaining way, with the four supremely talented members of the cast singing some dozen gospel songs well enough to explain why so many people still get up on Sunday mornings. Each of the four actors portrayed several characters – not just the members of the Bible study group on the day they were gunned down, but also their family and friends, their students and co-workers, in flashbacks that go back as much as 40 years. We see Christian Lee Branch — who co-wrote the play with director and choreographer Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and Adam Mace – as 74-year-old Daniel L. Simmons, telling an Army buddy after serving in Vietnam, and getting a Purple Heart, that he was going to become a preacher (“the family business.”) We also see him as 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, who was planning on graduate school and aiming to open up a barber shop.

 

 

Other plays about mass shooting (organized alphabetically by playwright):

“When It’s You”, by Courtney Baron

“The Library” by Scott Z. Burns

The Amish Project by Jessica Dickey

The Events by David Greig

 Gloria  by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

On The Exhale by Martin Zimmerman

 

 

 

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

One Response to Mass Shootings on Stage: Healing or Titillating?

  1. Jan Simposn says:

    These massacres are awful and I get why playwrights want to try to help us understand them but, as you observe, it’s tough to do that and few have succeeded. One that really didn’t was the totally exploitative “The Columbine Project” by Peter Storiale, which had a brief run at the Actors Temple Theatre in 2009.

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