Theatre should challenge us. But we shouldn’t be afraid that the guns are real

This article is more than 1 year old
Steph Harmon

In New York, mass shootings and racism are dominating the news. On Broadway, the news seems to seep into every show

Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird
‘The audience started screaming and the cast fled the stage’: Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Photograph: Julieta Cervantes
‘The audience started screaming and the cast fled the stage’: Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

Last modified on Tue 13 Aug 2019 22.04 EDT

Two nights before I saw Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway, the audience had scrambled, screaming, to get out of the same theatre.

Towards the end of the show last Tuesday, people outside began banging on the doors to get in, looking for refuge after a motorcycle backfiring in Times Square was mistaken for gunshots.

The cast ran off stage. According to reports, some in the audience crouched down to hide while others crammed the exit aisles trying to flee. Outside, people tore down Broadway in blind panic. “The street was all running, so I ran until no one was running,” one person said.

Footage of that night shows how quickly unfounded fear can spread – but history shows that fear, in this country at this time, isn’t unfounded at all.

I was in New York as an interloper from Australia, where strict gun laws from more than two decades ago not only stopped mass shootings, but left us – perhaps naively – feeling inoculated from the future prospect of them. After last weekend’s tragedies in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, where two mass shootings in 13 hours left 31 people dead, Australians – like many Americans – are devastated and infuriated.

Playing Scout Finch in Mockingbird, Celia Keenan-Bolger was delivering her final speech on Tuesday when people in the Shubert theatre audience heard the screaming. Across the street, the Music Box theatre (Dear Evan Hansen) and the Imperial theatre (Ain’t Too Proud) went into lockdown. Keenan-Bolger wrote on Twitter that she was still processing it all.

“All I can think about are the young people who’ve had to go through the actual thing,” she said. “The trauma and fear that they have had to endure and what something like that does to a young person’s brain. We cannot go on like this.”

Directed by Bartlett Sher, Sorkin’s powerful adaptation – or reinvention – of Harper Lee’s classic isn’t about gun control, but it does force us to reckon with another current issue. The story is told not just through Scout’s rose-tinted view of her father Atticus (Jeff Daniels), but through other characters who are more critical of him and his insistence to treat everyone – even violent bigots – with kindness. His son Jem (Will Pullen) calls it meekness, and his maid Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson) reminds Atticus repeatedly that there are not always very fine people on both sides. In fact, for the marginalised and vulnerable, false equivalences can be fatal.

LaTanya Richardson and Jeff Daniels in To Kill a Mockingbird
Calpurnia reminds Atticus repeatedly that there are not always very fine people on both sides. Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

In one scene in Mockingbird, white Maycomb townspeople walk down the aisles from the back of the theatre with their heads covered in hessian sacks, Ku Klux Klan members ready to lynch the wrongly accused black man Tom Robinson, who is in jail. Less than a week after two mass shootings, the people sitting around me bristled with tension. These actors were so close one’s hand brushed mine; in his other, I saw a handgun. It was impossible not to ask questions I’ve never asked during a show back home: is it even a prop? How do we know for sure? Are we safe in here? How quickly could I get out?

I can’t pretend I know what it feels like to live in a country where I have to scan for the nearest exit before I take my seat at a theatre – or a cinema or a classroom, for that matter – but last week that’s what I did. And, as an outsider on Broadway, the headlines of the past few weeks seemed to seep into every production I watched.

Another show set in the deep south, Daniel Fish’s adaptation of Oklahoma!, is about – among other things – the failed promise of America. The musical, which won a Tony and a heaping of critical acclaim, strips the nostalgic feel-goodery out of the original, presenting us with a bleak and thrilling insight into how deepening social divisions can brutalise the people left behind. “The farmer and the cowboy should be friends”, the cast sing – but suddenly they are scrambling over us in a hair-raising moment of mayhem, grabbing at the guns adorning the walls that box us in, and aiming them at each other over our heads. (How do we know the guns aren’t loaded? Are we safe in here? How quickly could I get out?)

According to the non-profit research group Gun Violence Archive, the US in 2019 has seen more mass shootings than days. I didn’t feel safe in those theatres last week, but as a white person I would have been far less at risk. Minutes ahead of the massacre in El Paso, which killed 22 people, the 21-year-old white gunman is believed to have posted a hate-filled manifesto which echoed the anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric that has been shared by President Donald Trump throughout his time in office. “White Replacement Theory” – which continues to motivate white nationalism and domestic terrorism – is brought into Sorkin’s Mockingbird overtly: half a century after the civil war, Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella are still terrified that black people are taking over. “It’s the race traitors I can’t abide,” Ewell threatens Atticus, who reminds him that actually, as always, white people are doing just fine.

MaYaa Boateng in Jackie Sibblies Dury’s Fairview.
MaYaa Boateng in Jackie Sibblies Dury’s Fairview. Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

But it was Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Fairview which brought the most startling, confronting moment of theatre I have ever experienced. The play begins innocuously, as we meet the middle-class black family at the centre of the drama, but before too long – through a series of startling narrative devices – white members of the audience are forced to reckon with the gaze and privilege they continue to enjoy at the expense of others. By the end, when Keisha (played by the brilliant MaYaa Boateng) stared each of us down, daring us to trade places with her, I was shaking with shame.

Theatre is most powerful when it responds to what’s happening around it; when it forces us into new positions of empathy and challenges how we see ourselves in the world. None of this is new. After the 2016 Orlando shooting – the 133rd mass shooting in that year alone (it was only June) – the Hamilton performance at the Tony awards removed guns from its choreography, with the actors miming holding the rifles instead. The show’s choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler, explained why they had made that call: “[The song] Battle of Yorktown is the first time the American forces ever put guns in their hands [in Hamilton] … The moment of putting them down is actually one of my favourite moments in the show.

“That’s our America today,” he continued. “It’s not taking up arms; it’s wanting to put them down.”