PITTSBORO — Their hands slam tables.
It’s supposed to represent gunshots.
On stage, six people represent the students who hid on April 20, 1999, in Columbine High School’s library in …
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PITTSBORO — Their hands slam tables.
It’s supposed to represent gunshots.
On stage, six people represent the students who hid on April 20, 1999, in Columbine High School’s library in Colorado as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shot and killed several of their classmates. Using words taken from the actual students, the young actors of Pittsboro’s Social Justice Theater of the Carolinas narrate the action.
The two actors portraying the shooters evoke the gloating nature of Klebold and Harris, speaking with glee about the mayhem they’ve caused. They slam a table at the back of the stage to signify shots fired.
This is a sneak peek inside rehearsals for “columbinus,” a production of nine Chatham County youth ages 13 to 26, director Tammy Matthews and others. The play is a partial re-telling of those events nearly 20 years ago and an examination of what it means to be a teenager and all the insecurities and idiosyncrasies teenagers face.
It’s been quite an experience for its actors.
‘We need to talk’
The Social Justice Theater of the Carolinas — an offshoot of the Pittsboro Youth Theater — is tackling a heady subject for its first play, and that was on purpose.
On Valentine’s Day 2018, a lone gunman killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. On that day, members of PYT had a rehearsal for a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But all they could talk about what Parkland.
“Some of the kids came in very upset about the shootings,” said Matthews. “After (rehearsal), a couple of kids stayed and talked about how awful it was.”
The next day, Matthews was going through scripts to try to pick the next play and found “columbinus.” Created by the United States Theatre Project, the play premiered in 2005 in Maryland and had an Off-Broadway run in 2006. It has two parts. The first covers a stereotypical set of high school students with names representing their archetype — Freak, Loner, Jock and Prep, for example — and their lives and struggles. The second transforms the characters into witnesses and participants in the Columbine shooting. Freak becomes Harris, Loner becomes Klebold, and the play uses actual reflections from survivors and the shooters’ journals to show what happened.
Hannah Conners, who plays Rebel, pushed Matthews to make “columbinus” the next production, pointing to the growing frequency of school shootings in the U.S.
“I think there’s not enough awareness out there for events like this,” Conners said. “Last year, it happened a lot. It’s just come to the point where it needs to stop, we need to talk about it.”
The news outlet Education Week tracked school shootings on K-12 property that resulted in firearm-related injuries or deaths throughout 2018. According to their counter, there were 24 shootings, with 35 people killed and 79 injured.
“columbinus,” Matthews came to believe, was a reflection of the times, and a story that needed to be told. She created the Social Justice Theater arm of PYT to tell stories that didn’t normally fit with the theater’s normal kid-friendly, popular fare.
“We’ve always been told to sweep it under the rug,” she said. “And I’ve watched it all these years get worse and worse.”
‘The characters...are really real’
Jacqui Anthenien (Freak/Eric) and Jake Dusenberry (Loner/Dylan) play the lead roles of the shooters, which they say provides a different angle than most acting jobs.
“In other plays, the bad guy is fictional, so you can have that fictional, ‘Oh, they’re completely evil,’” Anthenien said. “But in this one, they were actual human beings that did this. So you need to recognize both the evil thing that they did and that they were human.”
Dusenberry added, “In most of our plays, we kind of play a stereotype. In this play, we play someone that is real and did real stuff and harmed real people. So it takes a heavier toll.”
Matthews said the students have dove in to read and learn about what actually happened in Colorado nearly 20 years. They routinely read articles about teen suicide, school shootings and more to help take on the frame of mind of the characters they’re playing. But according to Conners, it doesn’t take much.
“Some of us are in high school, some of us are about to go into high school,” she said. “A lot of the characters, their insecurities and their values are really real to us.”
Abilene Dasher, who plays the scholarly A.P., said she watched a TED Talk by Dylan Klebold’s mother.
“It really helped me see how real these people and the characters are,” Dasher said.
Anthenien said she read some of Eric’s writings, but not too much.
“I didn’t want to know,” she said.
Matthews said she wanted her actors to “understand their humanity,” but not with too much depth. A counselor comes to rehearsals regularly to help students process how they’re feeling in light of the material they’re working with.
It’s intense stuff. Within “columbinus,” there’s sharp profanity, “gay bashing” and talk of murder and death, something that might turn some people off. Multiple cast members said that when they’ve told their friends about the play, some have raised their eyebrows.
“That’s the whole reason for doing it,” said India Nykamp, who plays Perfect. “When people hear about it, they’re like, ‘That is just not OK,’ because it’s such a forbidden topic, which is exactly why we need to.”
‘People that do stuff that changes the world’
Matthews said she was a teacher in Colorado when the Columbine shootings took place, and through the years since then, she said she’s not been able to talk about the shootings and why they happened broadly. This play, she said, is part of starting the conversation. She hopes the Social Justice Theater will tackle more hard topics, like the LGBTQ community and other social justice issues, in the future.
“We’re going to continue to do stuff, (be) people that do stuff that changes the world,” Matthews said.
For now, the group continues to plug away at “columbinus.” The show will premiere on April 19 with a 7 p.m. show at the Sweet Bee Theater in downtown Pittsboro. The next day, the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shootings, will see shows at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Afterward, the hope is that the group will be able to take the show on the road. Matthews and the crew are raising money through an IndieGoGo.com campaign to fund a tour of North and South Carolina starting in the summer to show the play at churches, schools and more.
They want change. They want the shootings to stop. Matthews references a speech in the play by Eric Harris, who says, “You made me, you made us.”
“The whole point is, if we were a kindler, gentler society in general, maybe things wouldn’t happen like this,” she said.
For now, however, the kids in the Social Justice Theater troupe are just trying to start a conversation.
“I feel like people sweep this kind of stuff under the rug way too much and we don’t talk about it that much because it’s ‘too intense’ or ‘not good for kids,’ when it is kids that are affected by it,” Dasher said. “I feel like that’s one of the main reasons we should talk about it more, and I feel like this play definitely brings up this conversation and will inspire people to talk about it.”
The Social Justice Theater of the Carolinas’ production of “columbinus” features Dusenberry, Anthenien, Dasher, Conners, Nykamp, Ethan Galiger (as Jock), Porter Humbert (as Prep), Alayna McLandsborough (as Faith) and Eden Priddle (as the understudy and stage manager).