On April 20, 1999 — 20 years ago today — two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Seven years later, New York Theatre Workshop presented Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli’s play “columbinus,” based on interviews with parents, survivors and leaders of that community, and including, court transcripts, diaries and home video, in order to create a drama that was part documentary and part fictionalized. The phenomenon of mass shooting, Charles Isherwood wrote in his review, “is one that neither journalism nor theater can analyze with satisfaction.”
Columbine was just one in a long line of school shootings (and far from the deadliest), several of them instantly identifiable: Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and (last year’s) Parkland. And “columbinus” (co-written by a playwright who went on to win a Tony for his play “The Humans”) is just one of an increasing number of theatrical works based on those specific massacres, and on 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? Is the violence on stage in a play an attempt to increase our understanding of the world around us, or just inject an adrenaline shot into the drama? Can it do both?
In “26 Pebbles,” playwright Eric Ulloa offered a documentary approach, similar to “columbinus,” 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.
Lindsey Ferrentino’s “This Flat Earth,” which was presented at Playwrights Horizons in 2018, tells the story of the effect on two teens of a school shooting that killed nine of their classmates. The details of the shooting itself, which occurs before the play begins, are offered in disconnected bits and piece, and kept vague. Instead, it largely focuses on the small, subtly devastating (and sometimes amusing!) effects on a handful of characters in the aftermath.
“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.
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 in 2017, 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.
“Good Friday” by Kristiana Rae Colon, which ran at the Flea last month, is the most recent play I saw that involves a school shooting. Although much of the running time is taken up with the shooting, and the shooter appears on stage, the play winds up being less about the issue of school shooting ,or gun violence, and more about our society’s “rape culture” — presenting it in a mix of intellectual feminist discourse and “Thelma and Louise” violent revenge fantasy.
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