“It’s very dramatic when two people come together to work something out. It’s easy to take a gun and annihilate your opposition, but what is really exciting to me is to see people with differing views come together and finally respect each other.”
– Fred Rogers, The World According to Mr. Rogers: Things to Remember
The last proper show to be staged by Berkeley’s now-closed Impact Theatre was their production of EM Lewis’ The Gun Show. It’s a solo show about one woman (intentionally portrayed on stage by a man) recounting personal memories as she tries to make sense of the US’s insatiable obsession with firearms. Speaking to the actor and director afterward, I learned that upon researching the work they realized that there was a high probability of a major American shooting some time during their run. Sure enough, one happened during rehearsal (one of many in 2015).
It’s a story all-too-common here in The States, where the lust for firearms outweighs the toll on human life. Stronger gun laws in other countries makes such regular shootings almost unthinkable. That’s why when White Supremacist terrorist Anders Behring Breivik carried out a series of attacks on Norwegian citizens in 2011, they had almost no frame of reference. They were just as bewildered as they were terrified.
Scottish playwright David Greig followed the news of Breivik’s killings. He scoured over every detail with the tenacity of a forensic investigator, but – despite the clear motivation of Breivik’s racism – couldn’t find an answer to his satisfaction. Greig channeled his frustration into his writing. The resulting 2013 play is a piece that feels incredibly timely in its topic (there have been so many recent shootings – the latest in Ohio – that I can’t link them all), but terribly old-fashioned in its clumsy execution.
It was just another day for Claire and her choir. Their song list had been selected, everyone had finished warming up, and the accompanist was ready to begin. The only thing out of the ordinary was the appearance of the quiet young man in the hoodie. He didn’t say a word, but he was as welcome in the church as anyone else. The feeling was not mutual
Despite all the time that’s passed, Claire still thinks of that day – the shooting, the screaming, the blood – but she still has one lingering question on her mind. She begins a journey that puts her in touch with therapists, politicians, and even the shooter’s friends and family; all so she can find the answer to her one question: “Why?”
When the details of the shooting are revealed – namely, that a White teen walked into a multi-ethnic church and began firing at parishioners – one would be forgiven in thinking that this 2013 play was made as a response to (or prediction of) the 2015 mass killing of members of the all-Black EAM Episcopal Church by terrorist Dylann Storm Roof. Like Roof, the character known simply as “The Boy” is silent as he’s warmly welcomed into the house of worship, only murder the worshippers in cold blood before being arrested. Like Roof, The Boy is later found to have been a near-loner who came from a broken home. Like Roof, The Boy was influenced by White supremacists. Even without those parallels, the material would be ripe for examining the motivation of a killer.
Unfortunately, neither Greig nor Shotgun approach the topic from the best angle. One of Greig’s major mistakes is to completely avoid any mention of American gun culture. Perhaps the Scottish writer didn’t know enough about it to write about it. Perhaps he thought it moot in regards to the mental motivation of the killer and the PTSD of the survivor. Perhaps he was afraid of incurring the wrath of the NRA and its members. Perhaps he was afraid the topic would get lost in an early scene where the blame is placed on everything from violent video games to a fascination with war history. In any case, it’s an egregious omission, given the fact that most of the play revolves around Claire researching what personal and cultural factors influenced The Boy. Greig’s play didn’t need to as thorough as Lewis’ The Gun Show or as esoteric as William Mastrosimone’s Bang Bang You’re Dead, but he drops the ball here.
Additionally, Shotgun makes the mistake of casting a young man of color as The Boy, turning the piece into a story of White victimhood. Although we later learn The Boy is supposed to be White and a reader of the writings of a White, far-right politician, his first spoken words are the story of an aboriginal boy who witnesses the landing ships of the first British invaders. “What would you tell that boy?” he asks us. “You would tell him to kill them.” Add to this the use of Kanye West’s “Blkkk Skkknhead” for a dance sequence in which Claire cowers from The Boy’s violent, animalistic movements (the song is later reprised as an acapella by the choir, which was all-White the night I saw the show). Mind you, the dance sequence is later revealed to have come from the active imagination of unreliable narrator Claire. So too is it revealed that Claire, a lesbian, is a minority herself, and was leading what-is-described-in-the-script-as-being a multi-ethnic choir. That doesn’t change the fact that Shotgun’s casting completely fumbles this point by making a young man of color – fueled by rap music – the greatest threat to a middle-aged White woman. The theatre might not have been aiming for that kind of racist propaganda, but that’s the result.
To the production’s credit: though it fails in explaining its message, it succeeds in almost every other area. Julia McNeal is well-cast as Claire, bring a sincerity to her pre-shooting joy, and an appropriate sadness to her post-shooting deterioration. Caleb Cabrera isn’t quite the chameleon he needs to be (in addition to The Boy, he plays every other character – male and female – whom Claire encounters), but he’s at his best when he’s The Boy. Although most of that character’s on-stage actions take place only in Claire’s mind, it’s Cabrera’s performance that sells them. As advertised, each performance will feature a different live choir directed by Claire. The choir I saw were from the Caz Family Chorus. They do quite well with their renditions of the classic “How Can I Keep from Singing,” the playful “And the Green Grass Grows All Around,” the Coldplay hit “Viva la Vida,” and the aforementioned “Blkkk Skkknhead”. Under the direction of Susannah Martin, the players all bring an appropriate emotionalism to a sometimes-confused (or apprehensive) text.
The technical side of the production is top-notch. Given that the Ashby Stage’s ascending seats already resemble church pews, it’s impossible to tell where they end and Angrette McClosky’s set begins. Wolfgang Wachalovsky’s lights really steal the show. There was one particular moment when nearly all of the light on-stage went off, but the backstage lights still shone throw the window before fading – it gave a very haunting effect to the scene. Equally effective is Jake Rodriguez’s soundscape. From the ambience of a crowded room to maddening sound of a ticking clock, Rodriguez strikes the right chord. Speaking of chords, the music work of coordinator Dave Möschler and music director Lisa Quoresimo wisely stays away from the “mixtape” feel of most other contemporary productions (there isn’t even any pre-show music) in favor emotional resonance. Add in the choreography of Shaunna Vella and Martin’s crew have created a sort of “nightmare ballet” that’s much better than the script deserves.
Like the protagonist of his play, playwright David Greig tried to make sense out of tragedy by channeling it into art. Unfortunately, he also mirrors his protagonist by tackling the serious topic in an incredibly trite manner. There’s nothing wrong with his wanting everything to work out for the best, but his “examination” of this topic never rises above the level of a long-form FB post (which Claire name-checks in the play). Throw in Shotgun’s poorly-thought casting and you’re left with a production that says “Shit happens” at best, “Those people are dangerous!” at worst. For a topic such as this, both of those conclusions are absolutely wrong.
The Events is scheduled to run until the 28th of May at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
The show runs roughly 90 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.