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Young playwrights use the theater to confront the trauma of gun violence


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: This weekend's mass shooting in Buffalo once again highlighted the devastating impact of gun violence in this country.

It is a problem all too familiar to many Americans, and specifically young people. In 2020, guns became the leading cause of death for children, surpassing fatalities from car accidents. Activists across the country are working to shed light on this issue through a series of plays written and performed by young adults, many of whom have had direct experience with gun violence.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Person: I usually would let you go, but it was a shooting down there where I know you all will be hanging in, and I just don't want nothing to happen to you, J.J.

Jeffrey Brown: At New York City's Lincoln Center, the reading of a play about a woman who lost her husband to gun violence and now fears the worst for her son.

It was written by a 18-year-old Taylor Lafayette.

Taylor Lafayette, Playwright: I really hope that my play, amongst others that were written, bring that change forth that this can not keep happening?

Person: You got three seconds. Then I'm taking it out your pockets.

Person: I ain't got nothing.

Person: Three!

Person: All right, chill. Look, the money...

Jeffrey Brown: In Tempe, Arizona, a performance about a boy who witnesses his older brother's murder and weighs whether to take revenge.

One of the student actors, Byron Roberson Jr.

Byron Roberson Jr., Actor: It's a part of life that you never want to face, but it's also one that you can't act as if it's not there. Ignorance isn't bliss when you're talking about this subject. Information, knowledge, that's the power.

Jeffrey Brown: The performance as a part of hashtag #Enough: Plays to End Gun Violence, a project written and acted by young people, expressing their anger, frustration and fear.

Earlier this spring, on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine, Colorado, school shooting, eight plays were performed in 29 states across the country, including Pittsburgh.

Person: Please walk by faith, please.

Jeffrey Brown: And Suitland, Maryland.

Person: God, please don't kill us.

Person: It's not me. I don't have a choice.

Jeffrey Brown: Scenes evoke the aftermath of a mass shooting.

Person: Another gun.

Person: Another shooting.

Person: This shouldn't have happened.

Jeffrey Brown: The trauma that endures when a loved one is lost.

Person: My mom cries everyday now, staring at the spot in the street where her baby boy's body lay.

Michael Cotey, Director/Producer: When I started this project, I told...

Jeffrey Brown: #Enough is the brainchild of Michael Cotey, a director and producer based in Chicago. In 2018, he was in a professional theater rehearsal, when the Parkland, Florida, shooting left 17 dead.

Michael Cotey: It just took over the entire vibe of the rehearsal. And then my memory of it is that, 10 minutes later, we got back to work working on plays.

And I -- that really left an unsettling feeling for me.

Jeffrey Brown: What was the feeling?

Michael Cotey: Frustrated that these things kept happening or feel like they keep happening. And, like, what am I doing in the theater, or, like, more specifically, like, what could we be doing with the theater to address this directly?

Jeffrey Brown: His idea, let young people be the storytellers.

Michael Cotey: They're able to put a story behind these awful, enormous numbers that should just drive us insane to do something about it, but somehow don't.

And I think that's what theater provides, this cathartic sense of where some people can go to express their grief and their anger and their trauma, but do that within their community.

Person: A space that small, a weapon like that, it doesn't take more than a few minutes. We rehearse it maybe 20 times a Friday.

Jeffrey Brown: In 18-year-old Willa Colleary's play "Rehearsal," a group of students and a teacher become obsessed with rehearsing a school shooting simulation.

Willa Colleary, Playwright: It has had such an effect on the psyche of people like me, American teenagers, anyone who has to go to school, and it's very rare that you get the opportunity to write about something that is so important on such a, like, national, if not global scale.

Jeffrey Brown: Like many teens, Colleary, who lives in Los Angeles has grown up in an America where school shooting drills are part of everyday life.

Willa Colleary: I go to school, and all these very normal, sort of banal things are happening. I'm doing schoolwork. I'm thinking about lunch. And then I'm like, beneath that, there's this weird undercurrent of anxiety about gun violence and looking around the room, where would I hide, or there's like a door that slams really hard somewhere, and you know immediately that it's not what you think it is.

But I think there's always this feeling of worry around it.

Jeffrey Brown: In Tempe, Arizona, Byron Roberson acted in the presentation of Colleary's play and found the experience cathartic.

Byron Roberson Jr.: A creative workspace is the best workspace, in my opinion. And when you're around people that make difficult things easy to talk about, it definitely helps a lot.

Jeffrey Brown: A freshman at Arizona State university, Roberson has lost both family and friends to gun violence.

Byron Roberson Jr.: I feel that the underlying thing is to understand and acknowledge what people do, and to have that conversation about people. And this is one of those ways to have that conversation.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a conversation all too familiar for Arizona state Representative Jennifer Longdon, who was shot and paralyzed 18 years ago. She was in the audience in Arizona, and joined a post-performance discussion.

State Representative Jennifer Longdon (D-AZ): I found it really very intense, very true to life. I found myself holding my breath several points along the way.

I think that it provides an outlet for the creators and the performers. And I think it's educational to the audience.

Jeffrey Brown: For her part, Taylor Lafayette traveled to New York from her home in Benoit, Mississippi. She has been writing since childhood, she told us, but this play was her most personal, a way to cope after losing her younger brother to gun violence.

Taylor Lafayette: He was 16, so very young, not even getting a chance to graduate high school, see senior year. And the fact that I do, I just -- I like to use that as motivation to keep going.

Jeffrey Brown: Why does art become the way to help you do that?

Taylor Lafayette: #Enough definitely drove me to see that I can use my voice as something more than just a way to release my own emotions. I can use it to cause change.

I don't want to keep my writing to myself. I want it to be in the world, because I feel that's where it needs to be.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Person: Enough!

Person: Enough!

Judy Woodruff: A moment of uplift that we needed tonight.

Thank you, Jeffrey Brown.

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