You missed powerful and sobering theater penned by teens from around the country if you didn’t attend the one-night-only premiere of ENOUGH! Plays to End Gun Violence at the Kennedy Center on November 6. The production was the marquee event in a nationwide series of identical readings of short plays simultaneously staged in schools, theaters, and communities coast-to-coast — readings designed to spark forthright conversations and action.
YOU CAN NOW WATCH THE READINGS ONLINE
Founded in 2019, ENOUGH! is an initiative that invites teens to confront gun violence by participating in a national short-play competition to promote critical conversations and inspire action across the nation. ENOUGH! received 244 submissions from 36 states. This 2023 ENOUGH! cohort answered the call with prepossessing scripts confronting gun violence that demonstrate mature insight, viewpoints from multiple perspectives and identities, and a range of ideas on what needs to happen to confront gun violence.
The winning staged readings showcased Monday night epitomize theater with power and purpose. I was deeply moved. The six passionate young playwrights scripted plays that are searing, honest, compelling, and profound. Each was remarkable. They are The Smiles Behind by Niarra C. Bell (Virginia), Lightning Strike by Amanda Fagan (Montana), A Call for Help by Pepper Fox (Kentucky), A Disorderly House by Sam Lee Victor (New Jersey), No Prospering Weapons by Justin Cameron Washington (Michigan), and The Matter at Hand by Valentine Wulf (Washington).
The Smiles Behind by Niarra C. Bell tells the story of a young Black girl named Lay challenging a police officer chasing her brother, a Black teen on the run who “fit the description” of an armed robber. It’s impossible to watch this scene without being reminded of the deadly outcomes that occur far too frequently in police encounters with Black teens. Bell reminds us of how deadly assumptions and expectations can be. And how lives can be changed in an instant, whether by recognizing what we have in common or being blind to it.
Amanda Fagan is the playwright of Lightning Strike. We meet her protagonist Hallie at 17, sharing memories of her first active shooter drill, and we follow her through life stages ending with her trauma triggered by her seven-year-old’s fears of her first active shooter drill. Fagan opens a window on the depth of trauma a kid can feel following a mass shooting and shows that it leaves deep scars. And sadly, Hallie’s aging from 17 to 45 conveys just how long mass school shootings have been an inescapable fact of life.
A Call for Help by Pepper Fox brings us inside an emergency call center and offers a perspective typically hidden from view (unless it’s a critical view, one exposing a failure of performance) of the dynamic between people involved in actual or threatened gun violence and the professional 911 dispatch workers charged with assisting them. In the play, the workers are jovial one minute and joking and in the next, they are bombarded with calls about gun violence. The three workers assist three callers, Sierra, a suicidal teen; Cameron, who accidentally shot a friend while playing; and Martha, an adult trapped with a nearby active shooter. Fox ratchets up the tension by leaving unanswered the outcomes of the emergency calls, including from one caller threatening to end her life. This spotlight on emergency dispatch workers is important and fills a gap I didn’t realize existed. I have to admit that I never considered what it is like to cope with such traumatic calls day in and day out.
In A Disorderly House by Sam Lee Victor, we meet parents Jack and Diane raging, talking, packing, arguing, and thinking in the aftermath of their transgender child’s murder. The play shines a light on ever-increasing threats and violence to people who are trans. I am amazed by the instantly believable characterization. By focusing on the child’s parents, Victor forces us to confront the dehumanization of trans people, and to see them as people who have families, families that loved them, families who will experience pain. And yet Victor explored victim blaming, too. Victor’s dialogue shows mastery of the art of subtext. The play is nuanced, riveting, and surprising.
No Prospering Weapons by Justin Cameron Washington examines the cyclical nature of gun violence and the role played by poverty and institutional disenfranchisement. It concerns two fathers, brilliantly named: Up-And-Coming, an up-and-coming rap artist who is killed by Down-And-Falling. This play takes us to the edge of violence, the contemplation of it, and the aftermath. Washington takes us into this world through poetic hop-hop and lyrical language and a call-and-response structure that keeps us focused on both characters at once. I loved hearing the musicality of his language. I also appreciated seeing the evolution of each character’s choices, choices that brought two people in a community to tragically different ends.
In The Matter at Hand, Valentine Wulf uses comedy to portray what I too believe is an ineffectual and absurd response to gun violence. The school principal in her play believes in kindness trinkets. After a school shooting she arms up with heavy artillery. Does it make her feel safer? Is it out of fear? Is she simply desensitized? It’s up to the viewer to decide. But in any event, I appreciated Wulf’s satiric approach because hers was an uncompromising and bracing take on commonly advocated solutions.
Clearly, these winning young playwrights have a lot to say about gun violence through the lens of 911 call takers on the front lines of calls for help following or during gun violence (which included an added dimension of threatened self-harm), to the trauma of school shootings, the ineptitude of misguided educators, gun violence in relation to African Americans and the police, community violence, and parental grief, anger, and regret following the killing of a trans teen. We should all listen.
Kudos to all of the local performers who brought these plays to life! The cast included DC-area teens along with professional actors Christopher Bloch, Jasmine Brooks, Tameika Chavis, Natascia Diaz, Caro Dubberly, Kari Ginsberg, Camilo Linares, Ethan Miller, and Matthew Sparacino. I was floored by the performance of the young actress portraying Lay in The Smiles Behind. I was staggered by the performers portraying parents Jack and Diane in A Disorderly House.
After the program there was a discussion with the playwrights and gun violence prevention activists from Change the Ref, Brady’s Team ENOUGH, and DC’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention. This gave the audience additional context for the performances. The discussion also allowed for much-needed pause and reflection. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person watching who had held her breath at multiple points during the plays. Before leaving we were given the opportunity to recite the names of the living, those close to us on whose behalf we were saying enough. It was a final poignant moment in an evening full of them.
I salute these young playwrights for using playwriting for activism and social change. We need them. I look forward to seeing more of their work in the future. They have answered the call. To quote the great Tony Morrison:
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
I left ENOUGH! motivated by the call to action. Moreover, I left hopeful because of the growing numbers of people, especially young people, who have rightly concluded that enough is enough. And today as I prepared this review I did a deep dive into enoughplays.com for information and resources that accompany the production materials. I came away with concrete plans for action based on the Nationwide Reading Action Items suggested online. I urge you to do the same.
ENOUGH! Plays to End Gun Violence were read on November 6, 2023, nationwide and locally in Studio K of the REACH at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, Washington, DC, presented by Kennedy Center’s Social Impact and Education departments in partnership with a coalition of DC-area theaters: Signature Theatre, Arena Stage, Round House Theatre, Imagination Stage, Olney Theatre Center, 1st Stage, The Theatre Lab, and Mosaic Theater.
To learn more about the Kennedy Center, visit kennedy-center.org.
SEE ALSO: Six winning plays about ending gun violence to premiere at Kennedy Center (news story, July 15, 2023)