By Lisa Green
"Rob Day" photo by Yi-Chun Wu
MSNBC and Fox News don’t have a lock on discourse about guns. At Performance Spaces for the 21st Century (PS21)
in Chatham, New York, a dancer playing the part of a 9 mm pistol and a male actor voicing the experiences of the female playwright will attempt to open our eyes — and hearts — to an issue that doesn’t, the artists say, have to divide us.
Guns in America, two weekends of performances and workshops centering on the issue of guns, will be presented by PS21 April 21-22 and April 27-28 as part of its 2018 spring performances season (the first in its new black box theater). Actor Chris Smith
will perform a one-person play by playwright E.M. Lewis that explores the role guns play in our lives. The Jamal Jackson Dance Company
will take on the theme with a new work, "Rob Day." Both Jackson and Smith will also be giving workshops for community members where they will have the opportunity share their experiences and perceptions within a creative context.
Although the current zeitgeist might have prompted PS21’s programmers to intentionally choose this theme, it came about organically, said Susan Davies, the center’s administrative director.
“It started as the Actors’ Ensemble’s idea. We reached out to them when we were planning the season, and they suggested we present their work, 'The Gun Show.' At the same time, we had been wanting to bring the Jamal Jackson Company back — he comes every summer — and he had a piece about guns and the part they play in our society.”
On Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21, Chris Smith, under the direction of Robert Jordan, will bring “The Gun Show” to the Hudson Valley. It has been performed elsewhere, but, as Smith said, it has become more relevant, not less. The piece reflects Lewis, the writer’s, experience; she grew up in rural Oregon around guns as a way of life. As she matured, she became conflicted about firearms and tells the story of America’s relationship with them through the prism of her own personal experiences.
“The idea is to get people talking and listening to each other,” Smith said. “It’s a yes or no question right now. You’re either for taking all the guns away, or for everybody having guns. It’s so polarizing. She’s saying ‘I wish we could talk to each other about it.’ And the voice that’s coming out is female, but a male is playing her, which speaks to our common humanity.”
At the Saturday workshop, Smith will use acting techniques to get people talking about their own stories and perceptions about guns. PS21 invites participants of all political beliefs, ages, races, gender identification and levels of acting experience to take part in the workshop.
The Jamal Jackson Dance Company will take over the second weekend with “Rob Day.” The title is a letter conversion for a serial number, and is told through the story of the protagonist, a 9mm pistol, played by a female dancer. The gun travels — from the hands of a child soldier to the home of a West Virginia family that carefully locks the gun in a closet — showing different sides of the issue. The work is text heavy, with spoken words as part of the score. There is text from Elizabeth Warren’s filibuster for gun reform, and a recording of a firearm-owning family having a dinner conversation.
“What was most challenging for my company and me is that we all come from a liberal background,” Jackson admitted. “But we didn’t want to tell a random liberal story. We’re trying to show different connections to firearms.”
The evening’s program will also include the company’s “Temple Burn It Down.”
Jackson’s workshop will demonstrate how some of the movement was generated for the piece, and participants will learn to create movement in response to the social and psychic impact of guns.
Davies said that while the program was designed to be an intergenerational series, they're hoping that teenagers will be able to attend Guns in America performances and take part in the workshops. “It could be a helpful way for them to express what they’re thinking and feeling,” she said.
It could help the rest of us, too.
Guns In America — A series of performances and workshops on guns
April 20-22 and April 27-28
2980 Rt. 66, Chatham, NY