This past Monday marked eight years since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The children killed that day (mostly six and seven years old) would be teenagers if they’d lived. So it’s fitting that a project focused on new plays about gun violence specifically focused on work by teenagers.
Launched by Chicago-based director Michael Cotey in 2019, #Enough: Plays to End Gun Violence sought submissions of ten-minute plays from students at middle schools and high schools around the country. Seven were selected as winners by a panel of high-profile playwrights, including Lauren Gunderson, David Henry Hwang, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Robert Schenkkan, and Karen Zacarias.
The Goodman Theatre partnered with #Enough to produce one of the selections: Ghost Gun by Olivia Ridley, a high school senior from New Jersey. Ridley’s play, directed by Goodman associate producer Ken-Matt Martin and starring Jayson Lee, is a solo piece for a young Black man which turns the convention of the “villain’s monologue”–the speech delivered by the “bad guy” to the hero just before a final act of evil–on its head as an indictment of white supremacy and assumptions about Black youth.
Ridley’s approach has Lee’s impassioned nameless speaker describing his own anguish and despair at feeling invisible and “decayed.” “Do you see me? You see me?” he asks in the opening line. “My flesh is rotting. My flesh.” And then he adds, “I got a gun now. Of course you all see me now. You all couldn’t help but see me. You all are scared shitless.”
Ghost Gun weaves together the polemical and the poetic. “When you’re really alive, the ugly is inescapable. It runs in rivers and blood-soaked streets,” Lee’s narrator says, while anatomizing the paradox of being both invisible and feared while moving through the world.
Ridley, who writes and performs slam poetry in addition to plays, says that she’d been having “conversations with my friends about trying to pursue activism in art, especially with everything that’s happened in the past few months.” The focus on school shootings in debates about gun control, however, made her feel that “there is a great deal about this conversation that lies outside of that. This is such a far-reaching issue. It’s so complex and nuanced and with countless other components to it. Two of those components, I thought, are race and class, and I didn’t really think I had really seen that introduced into the conversation in many places.”
She also notes that her twin brother’s experiences as a young Black man influenced her writing. “We move through the world beside each other. So I do notice when we’re at CVS if someone is following him, or they think he’s up to something suspicious. Or having the conversation with him: ‘John, when you walk by cop cars at night, you have to pull your hood down. John, walking anywhere at night, pull your hood down. Be extra friendly to police officers.'”
In a panel discussion hosted virtually by the Goodman on December 12, Ridley noted the limiting ways many narratives about gun violence frame Black lives. “It’s either a complete victimization of them as a person, or they’re characterized as violent and aggressive and not allowed to be multifaceted individuals.”
Creating the piece by remote presented its own challenges, notes Martin. But he and Ridley decided that doing it simply as a “Zoom play” wasn’t the right approach. “Olivia’s language is incredible and the story and the way in which she’s telling this particular story and the narrative that she crafted is something that is vivid and wide and so deep and rich that I was just not interested in trying to make it only over Zoom.” Yee Eun Nam’s expressionist backdrop (black splatters on white, eventually overtaken by pools of red) and Twi McCallum’s haunting electronic soundscape add to the sense that we’re in a kind of limbo with Lee’s end-of-his-rope speaker.
The #Enough festival streams free through December 20 at BroadwayOnDemand.com.
August Wilson lives
As buzz grows around the new film version of the late August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman in his last film role, it’s a good time to revisit another youth-oriented theater venture, also featured on Netflix. The documentary Giving Voice follows six high school students (three based in Chicago) as they journey through the 2018 August Wilson Monologue Competition, hoping to win a shot at performing on Broadway (back before COVID shut down the theaters). The documentary, directed by James D. Stern and Fernando Villena, won an audience favorite award at Sundance this past year. The competition for 2021 is going virtual; submissions from Chicago students will be accepted beginning January 4. For information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Silberstein wins Maurice Seymour Award
This past year, with so much streaming and archival content filling the gap left by the loss of live performance, we’ve perhaps come to appreciate more than ever the art of documenting theater and dance. For many Chicago theaters and dance companies, no one does it better than Scott Silberstein and HMS Media. Now the Chicago Dance History Project recognizes Silberstein’s contributions with the inaugural Maurice Seymour Award. The name of the award is actually a combination of two brothers, Maurice and Seymour Zeldman, who joined their names when opening their respective photo studios. The two often photographed celebrities, but Maurice also won acclaim for his two-volume collection of ballet photographs.
The award “recognizes an individual who has demonstrated the ability to ‘see more’ in the Chicago dance world and made an extraordinary contribution in specific alignment with CDHP’s mission to investigate, document, and present the individual and institutional histories of Chicago dance.” Silberstein, who opened HMS Media in 1988 with his longtime friend and collaborator Matt Hoffman, has won numerous Emmys and other awards for his work. He’ll receive the Seymour as part of CDHP’s “Interview Marathon,” which streams all day on Sunday, January 31, featuring live interviews and archival clips of past performances. You can see the whole thing for $20, which helps support CDHP’s ongoing efforts to preserve dance history in Chicago. v