Gun violence has been very much in the public mind lately, from the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School to Mark Carson’s recent death in New York City and the Mother’s Day parade shooting in New Orleans. If you want some evidence that the next generation takes the problem seriously and isn’t resigned to its own destruction, you should see 9mm America.
This arresting production, exploring how gun violence affects our lives, comes courtesy of Girl Be Heard, a theater collective that gives young women a venue to write and perform socially conscious plays under professional guidance. The show debuted on June 1, but I had a chance to see the work-in-progress, while the delivery of the lines was still being honed and scenes were being mixed, matched and cut. Based on the play’s power, even at that stage, I would encourage readers to go see the final product. This one’s going to hit hard.
Girl Be Heard productions draw material both from participants’ personal experience around an issue and research into other people’s experience. Some of what emerges is straight narrative and some is more impressionistic. On the heels of Trafficked, about sex trafficking, 9mm America leans in the more impressionistic direction. It is a series of personal stories, à la Vagina Monologues, that morph with great ease into defiant raps, mournful arias, bracing polyrhythmic stomp-and-clap dances, and other, freer verse forms. Diverse as the actors’ experiences are, the disparate strands add up to an inescapable message about systemic violence and the apathy and greed that perpetuate it.
The play has its share of iconic moments. Among them are a sarcastic primer on armed machismo called “Guns 101” and a catchy song and dance that bookends the play with shout-outs to the global victims of violence: “From Liberia to the Congo, from Palestine down to Mexico.”
However, perhaps the most powerful of these moments is the one that veers most obviously into the world of childhood in the form of a double-Dutch game. The actors jump into the churning ropes and enter a state of palpable elation as they dodge and weave and the ropes (or violence? or heartbreak?) pass mere inches under their feet. This contrast highlights just how freighted the words and motions have been so far. The fleeting moment of play captures that precious innocence that surprising numbers of children still manage to cling to, even when those in charge have failed to protect them from violence and want.
Company member Betsy Perez said in a post-rehearsal interview that she found herself seeking to present a balanced message in the show. The real-world ravages of gun violence are felt disproportionately in communities of color, and Perez didn’t want to shy away from that — but, she explained, at the same time, “We didn’t just want to make it tunnel vision … a racial thing. … It’s an epidemic [in] America as a whole. … Even if you’re not directly affected, you’re affected regardless.” (In fact, one rap from the play warns us that “some of the illest killas come from rich villas”). Perez’s colleague, Melanie Martins, elaborated with her view about the mass media, citing the formulaic, factoid-heavy presentation of news as a major culprit and saying that viewers act as though, “just because the news went off, the issue went away too.”
While Perez and Martins draw inspiration for the production from their own truly horrific experiences with gun violence, the production has been an eye-opening experience for Monica Furman, who relates that she fell into that same out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality by living in a relatively safe neighborhood. “I felt like I was in a bubble and it just got burst by the creation of this show.”
Ashley Marinaccio, GBH’s founder and artistic director, steers with a sure hand and a heart that knows when to be heavy or light. She prodded the actors to think critically about potential solutions to these problems, beyond the confines of the play, so that the lines would read authentically: Do we change the law? Do we protest in the street? Do we reduce the military budget? There is no easy, single answer, but that doesn’t faze the participants. Though the play doesn’t bring all good news by a long shot, it’s clear that some bright young minds, with plenty of life ahead of them, are gearing up to meet the challenges.
9mm America runs through June 19 at the Robert Moss Theater, at 440 Lafayette Street. For tickets, showtimes and more, see www.girlbeheard.org/9mm-america.