Violence in America: Theater’s Response

An 18-year-old yesterday shot and killed at least 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, a mass shooting that occurred just ten days after another 18-year-old shot and killed 10 people in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York and ten years after a 20-year-old shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Exactly two years ago today, the killing of George Floyd in  Minneapolis, Minnesota provoked a racial reckoning in the United States…and in theater. The anniversary of Floyd’s killing, and the latest of an endless series of mass shootings, makes this feel the right time to ask once again: How has theater responded to violence in America? How has it been depicted on American stages? Has theater helped, by encouraging us to understand or to mobilize, or has it hurt, by adding to the glorification of violence in the culture?  As I put it in the title of a piece I wrote for HowlRound seven years ago:  Violence on Stage: Healing or Titillating?  

Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Parkland. These are the shorthand we now use for specific shooting massacres that have taken place in schools over the past two decades. And nearly every one of them has been depicted on stage.

On April 20, 1999, 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.”

In “26 Pebbles,” a play first produced in 2017 in Dayton, Ohio, playwright Eric Ulloa offered a documentary approach, similar to “columbinus,” in his depiction of the Sandy Hook killings.  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. 

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.

Mass shootings, of course, have not been limited to school grounds. “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.

School shootings are often depicted on stage without explicit connection to a real-life event. “Good Friday” by Kristiana Rae Colon, which ran at the Flea in 2019, spent much of its running time with a school shooting, and the shooter appears on stage. But 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.

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.

By contrast, 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.

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

Ten more plays on school shootings via Playscripts

The past two years have been a time of lockdown and trauma, and an  attempt in the culture at large with the violence against Black people. It has also brought more plays by Black playwrights on stage (physical or virtual.)  A few have dealt directly with specific incidents of violence: Dael Orlandersmith’s “Until The Flood” was the third play I’ve seen inspired by the by the killing by police officer Darren Wilson of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. The play is a succession of monologues by eight widely varied characters,  based on interviews Orlandersmith conducted with people who live in the area around Ferguson. First produced on stage in Missouri in 2016 as a solo show starring Orlandersmith, “Until the Flood” was presented online twice during the pandemic – once in 2020, and then in a new digital production with three actresses by Studio Theatre of D.C. in April of last year. 

The violence against Black people was depicted melodramatically in “Black No More,” allegorically in the Broadway production of “Pass Over”, and apocalyptically in “Tambo & Bones” It’s worth noting how often the violence in plays by Black playwrights more often follows the model of Greek tragedy rather than American entertainment — the violence most often occurs off-stage, and is designed to help the community come to terms with the violence they’ve experienced. Among the most affecting theater about violence I’ve seen in the past two years was “A Mother’s Rite,” an original dance piece by Jeremy McQueen’s Black Iris Project starring Courtney Celeste Spears. The dance is not about the violence (at the start, we hear a news report of a judge acquitting a police officer in the shooting death of a Black college student), but about a mother’s grief.

Author: New York Theater

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

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