I still remember where I was when news broke about the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado. I was a graduate student in Pittsburgh, although I was already plotting my escape from academia and a move to Chicago.
I ran into two professors in the hallway, who were analyzing media coverage of the event. One of them, in tones both sardonic and frustrated, said (of the way the news outlets were portraying the shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold) “So what’s our choice? To call them evil? Or to call them insane?”
columbinus, the newly reworked 2005 play by P. J. Papparelli, is an attempt to unpack and unravel the way events like Columbine, even before they’re over, get trapped in such rigid moral framings.
The play is an oral history of the events, based on interviews with survivors, witnesses, police and other community members in Littleton. Some of the videos Harris and Klebold made are reenacted, and their short stories and journal entries are part of the script. For the first act, which is kind of a kaleidoscope perspective on teen life (how identities and cliques are formed, the way adolescents interact both with various authority figures and one another), Papparelli talked with young people across the country.
There are lots of plays about and by teenagers but what's interesting about columbinus is the way it takes them as a serious subject of study.
Like other minority or marginalized figures, teens too suffer from representations that either villify (super predators) or glorify (super consumers) their potential. In columbinus that either/or dynamic is done away with, as many characters morph from upper to under dog, and say or do things that elicit both our sympathy and our displeasure.
Papparelli makes use of all-too-familiar stereotypes (the characters go by such titles as "jock" "freak" "loner" and "perfect"), only to dig into the messy beating hearts and minds that lie behind the labels.
When we sat down to talk before a performance, Papparelli said the impetus of the play was to examine "these two specific teenagers," Klebold and Harris, and what was going on with them "that they would do what they did."
But he was also interested in teen culture more generally. And as he talked about the tough-going nature of the teenage years, he became visibly emotional.
"I think about Dylan and Eric and I don’t sympathize with a thing they’ve done. It haunts me and will always haunt me. But I empathize with being a teenager, the feeling of loneliness that’s inside their journals. How could they be that disconnected and that alone and no one around them saw this? I don’t believe that!"
Papparelli has also formed a strong bond with some of the Columbine survivors and their relatives he interviewed.
Ruth and Paul Feldman came with their now grown children Brian and Emily to see columbinus for the first time. Though the younger Feldmans weren't talking, Ruth said they had to leave during the second act, which recreates the shooting in grueling and sometimes graphic detail.
Her husband Paul stayed, but it wasn’t easy. "You know it’s still alive in me. Another shooting happens and it all comes back again. I get this sad depressed feeling. You know, why do they keep doing this?"
Former Former Columbine student Brooks Brown was friends with Dylan Klebold.
He attended the play with his parents. Afterwards, at a post-show talk-back, they and cast members took questions from young theatre students.
One student asked simply: "Who do you blame?"
Though his father Randy seems angry over what he thinks was a failure by local police to effectively respond to and then investigative the shooting, Brooks seemed to have reached a different perspective.
"For a long time I blamed myself, that I could have done more. My brother was in the cafeteria, I had friends who died, friends who were maimed, friends who were in wheelchairs. It’s an awful experience and I think actually the place I’m ending up is not necessarily a blame, of that person’s at fault, this person’s at fault. It’s where could I have done something positive that would have stopped this. How could I have helped this person?"
P. J. Paparelli, the Feldmans and the Browns all seem to share a similar faith in the play: That audiences, after seeing it, will ask themselves that very question: "What can I do to help?"
Not just in the wake of school shootings like the one at Columbine (or Sandy Hook Elementary or Northern Illinois University). But as a response to what Vice President Biden recently called the "Sandy Hook-plus" of daily gun violence, in communities across the United States, including right here in Chicago.
columbinus is at the American Theatre Company through March 10.