I sat in my office in south Texas. At the time I was helping run a touring company. I was sitting at my desk working on another plan to drum up more bookings. My computer at the time was on “dial-up.” Something on Yahoo caught my eye. A massive shooting incident in suburban Colorado.
Since those days about twenty years ago, the word “Columbine” has come to define itself – the site of a mass shooting incident. And since then several other sites have been added to the list. Some of the names have become associated with the mass shooting incident – like Sandy Hook – while others like Virginia Tech have not. Regardless we careen from incident to incident like angry, abusive drunks. We take these pauses of variable length, but always the fist comes down again beating at another member of the family.
Some people think that these events shouldn’t be a part of our news. They’re so tragic, and we aren’t going to do anything anyway. Also, you don’t want to popularize the perpetrator, so best not to mention it at all.
Despite the pre-arranged script that accompanies each of these events (I need not recount it, it’s so well-rehearsed and widely known), I’m glad these events still make the news. It should be news when multiple members of the community are struck down. If these events become so commonplace that we don’t consider them news anymore, I would fear for our human spirit.
And, as we know, these events aren’t the whole story – or even the big part of the story of guns and gun violence in America.
Sarah Mervosh reported in the New York Times on December 18, 2018 that, “More people died from firearm injuries in the United States [in 2017] than in any other year since at least 1968.” There were 39,773 gun deaths in 2017. More than 26,000 of those gun deaths were from suicide. Just under 4,000 children and teens were shot in 2017, including fatal and non-fatal shootings. Only about 2,000 shootings were labelled as “defensive.”
The shooting of twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was shocking in the extreme. The subsequent shooting of a group of people in an act of terrorism by a white supremacist at a church in Charleston in 2015 affected me strongly.
Since those days, from time to time I’ve endeavored to have a conversation about guns and gun violence. Those efforts have gone nowhere.
Recently a colleague told me about a conversation he had with a group of university students not long after the massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Had they a robust conversation about this troubling event? Oh, yes. It turned out that everyone could agree that anti-Semitism is bad.
Good to hear.
What about a conversation about guns and gun violence?
Oh, no. That’s so divisive. We were looking to build community in such a time of stress. Talking about guns would have only divided people.
Of course I don’t know how things are where you live, but we have the devil of a time getting the two sides (more sides?) in the gun issue to actually talk to each other.
So, in early April, in my little corner of the theatrical world, we decided to do something about that. We did nine performances of three shows in fourteen days. The shows all focused on guns and gun violence in America. Our object? Not to present plans of action, but to open a space where contemplation and the beginnings of conversation could happen.
I have to admit that there were times that I swung between two poles. Some days I thought we would be able to break open the log-jam and start a vigorous conversation about this seemingly intractable issue. Other days I wondered if anyone would show up at all.
I have to admit also that I wondered if by announcing that simply the announcement of such a program of shows would attract some crazy or crazies who might injure us. (Luckily that never happened.)
We started off with a production of 26 Pebbles by Eric Ulloa. Modelled after The Laramie Project, Ulloa takes us into the town of Newtown, CT to meet real people and take us through the events of that event and its after-math. Six actors portray about 20 town-people, none of whom lost family members in that event. Nevertheless, the play presents the very real tragic effects of violence on real people. Some people become anti-gun activists. Some do not.
Curiously we had a breadth of opinions within the cast as well. One cast member raised the issue that the play did not go as strongly as it should have done to promote gun control in the wake of such a horrific event. Another cast member spoke more than once saying that guns weren’t responsible, it was the people.
The next week we presented two shows. The anchor for the whole two weeks was a presentation of The Gun Show (solo) by E.M. Lewis. This one-person show presents an actor speaking in the first person on behalf of the playwright. The text revolves around five gun stories with a little talk in-between each story.
After each performance of both 26 Pebbles and The Gun Show we provided some space for a lightly moderated (someone kept their eye on the clock) conversation following curtain call. Some nights the conversation was more perfunctory than others. A couple of nights we had some disagreements in these conversations. However, everyone spoke respectfully and treated each other collegially.
We finished with a student-derived “cabaret” performance of songs and dance pieces inspired by guns and gun violence. The purpose was not to present some narrative or clearly defined “journey.” Rather, more like more abstract poetry or painting, the pieces reflected feelings and ideas.
What was the result of all of this? I can’t say today. It’s still too near. And possible, if we were most effective, I might not see the positive results. The positive results might be in someone not mounting their high horse in a social media conversation. The positive results might be in someone listening a little bit more in that conversation with that crazy uncle that every family seems to have. The positive results might be in someone deciding about suicide, “Not today.”
We need to talk more. Not just amongst our own side, but across the divide. The sides need to talk with each other.
And listen, too.