Episode Four — ‘Mrs. Clements, Your Legs Are Shaking’
“These are actual people who said these actual words,” Cry Havoc Theater director Mara Richards Bim said to her cast at the end of June 2018. “And sometimes you guys are paraphrasing. We need to honor the words they said.”
This came after months of interviews the young performers of Cry Havoc had with gun violence survivors, a gun range owner, politicians, NRA members, a constitutional law professor and a trauma surgeon. Now, they were ready to start making their play – Babel.
The process began with Richards Bim and her associate director Shelby-Allison Hibbs reading through transcribed versions of more than 75 recorded conversations. While reading, the two directors pinpointed individual stories and memorable moments to be excerpted and dramatized in the play.
Then, after the script was developed, Richards Bim gave the actors roles to play, scenes to work out. She also brought in an acting coach, lighting and sound technicians, costumers and choreographers.
With a documentary theater or verbatim theater piece like Babel, what faces the performers isn’t the typical challenge for an actor. Normally, when taking on a role like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, actors must make fictional characters seem real. Instead, the Cry Havoc actors had met real people. They’d heard their personal stories.
And now they had to try to convey them with some honesty, clarity — and drama.
“A lot of us were burnt out,” said actor Trinity Gordon about the final push to get Babel onto the stage. “Like, we had different signs of burnout. … it’s a lot to do this show.”
The entire experience was more emotionally draining than anyone could’ve expected. Rehearsing and re-telling stories of suicides and mass shootings from people they met took its toll. But in the end, all eight performances of the Babel were sold out. And the actors said the experience changed their outlook on politics, on gun violence. It changed them personally as well.
Trinity portrayed Sandy Hook Elementary parent Nicole Hockley in Babel. In order to familiarize herself with Hockley’s grief, Trinity saved photos of Hockley’s dead son Dylan on her phone. She said she would look at the images from time to time.
“I just really felt like I had to tell her story. And everyone’s like, ‘Trinity, that’s not healthy!’ But I’m like, I’m not sad when I look at these pictures. … I’m just looking at the life that Nicole sees and I’m just trying to understand what she lost.”
At the time, Trinity lived in a working-class neighborhood plagued by gun violence. Each year she was in high school, Trinity told us, she lost at least one classmate to gun violence.
“There’s these kids who, they’re getting shot in their neighborhoods every day. It’s not just some person coming into their schools, it’s somebody coming into their homes, into their communities. And I know, it’s inevitable that another shooting’s going to happen and there’s going to be a part of me that’s like ‘Damn. This [show] didn’t do anything.’ But — I mean it did something to somebody. And it’s done something to me.”
Cara played Sue Loncar. She’s the mother of Grace Loncar, a classmate of Cara’s who shot herself in 2016. In an interview, Cara said that she didn’t even know she was cast as her friend’s mother until the first day of rehearsals.
“It was a little weird. Let me be real. It took me a second to process that was happening. . . . I don’t think I signed up like, ‘I’m going to talk about my dead friend, everybody.’ But you know, Sue shared her story and I think it’s a good one to share.”
Partly because of the loss of her friend, Cara had a negative perspective about guns when the cast first started working on Babel. But meeting with gun owners and listening to their reasons for wanting to be armed helped Cara to better understand some people’s need to have a firearm in their home.
Still, she wondered if guns are the answer to society’s problems and insecurities.
“I think guns are such a fear-based thing. Because we can focus on all of the numbers outside of ourselves, but then when people think about ‘That’s my life on the line.’ It’s like, ‘Who cares about all these other people?!? I’m looking out for my life!’
“So I think that’s what gets in the way of us taking a step back and going, ‘What’s best for society at large?’ Because you can always be like, ‘Well, I’m defending my own first and foremost.’ But I don’t think that’s how you save the most amount of lives.”
Jamaya was one of the only cast members in Cry Havoc whose parents had guns in their home. Her dad owns a rifle for hunting and a handgun for personal protection. Jamaya admitted she felt conflicted about this. With all of the problems guns can lead to, she was wary about them. But considering that her parents had been victims of violence, she didn’t not want guns in her home either.
“As much as I would love to say ‘Just get rid of all guns, like, they’re horrible, horrible death machines,’ I can’t necessarily say that because I come from a home where we have a gun in the house. And so, you don’t know what to do.”
By the end of the show, however, Jamaya had become a proponent of an automatic weapon ban, she was in favor of a gun registry. And she felt optimistic about reducing gun violence — somehow.
“It’s all about incremental change. You know, a lot of people in my cast have been talking about ‘incremental change,’ and at first I was like, ‘Guys, that’s BS.” But I do think that we gotta start somewhere and keep stepping, ’cause nothing in this country has ever happened quickly.”
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