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On April 20, 1999, two young teens in the middle of the country made a pact; they carried out that pact with determination and precision. As a result, 13 students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado were lost to gun violence. The two assassins took their own lives, as well, bringing the total death toll to 15.
The story remained on page one for weeks. Why did this happen? How? And how do we keep it from happening again? Many of these questions got answers; the furor faded, and eventually other things pushed Columbine off the front page. But the one question that was the most important did not receive any kind of definitive answer; because it did not, student deaths continue to happen. So the question remains: how do we keep it from continuing to happen? Those who feel guns have a place in our lives say, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people." Those who oppose this notion throw up their hands in despair and try to think about other things. But no one seems intent upon making sure that this kind of horror stops.
Now it has been over 20 years since Columbine. Now, here in the Triangle, students who are too young to remember Columbine are looking at it, and they have questions. Not only why but how; how can it be stopped? At Social Justice Theater of the Carolinas, eight students who are all still in high school are continuing to ask these pointed questions, because they don't seem to be getting any answers. Their play is a theatrical question mark, and they have been asking it for some time now. The group performed their work on the 20th anniversary of Columbine. And they are still performing it now.
Before the play began, the audience was addressed by one of the production staff, because she too is frustrated that those who know how to end this kind of violence don't seem to be interested in actually doing it. It is a frustration that is shared by her cast. Even as they continue to depict exactly what happened – the why and the how, and the names and faces of those who died – the frustration shows. These kids weren't even born when Columbine happened, but by performing columbinus they show a backbone and a determination that dwarfs the will of the generation that witnessed the event.
columbinus is an ensemble piece written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli (with contributions by Josh Barrett, Sean McNall, Karl Miller, Michael Milligan, and Will Rogers) that carries an octet of actors. Many play more than one character, but their principal characters have names. There is Freak (Jacqui Athenien), who cannot control his "evil," short temper, and Loner (Jake Dusenberry); these are our two conspirators. Then there's Rebel (Hannah Conners), a goth who openly smokes and loves to wear black, and AP (Abi Dasher), who doesn’t understand why a guy he used to share his candy bars with suddenly can’t remember his name because he's no good with a basketball. Jock (Ethan Galiger) is that guy; he thinks he's God's gift and puts anyone down who disagrees with him. Then there's Faith, who has been raised to be a "good girl" but has questions, when she prays, that don't get answered. Then there's Prep (Eden Priddle) who is a peer counselor; she asks all the right questions but doesn't really hear the answers she's given. Finally, there's Perfect (India Nkamp), the popular girl who let her boyfriend in through her bedroom window, and has just learned she's pregnant.
These students are all just trying to get through; their problems seem insurmountable to them, and because of this, they take out their frustrations upon each other. This is one of the questions: how do we learn to treat our acquaintances better, and to teach our children to do the same? As these eight drive headlong toward the inevitable end, these questions arise. Why, if the two conspirators had a total of 15 times in a police station, were they still allowed to go back to a school they obviously despised? We learn that they are both very good at pulling the wool over the eyes of those who want to believe they are reforming these two. Where did they get their weapons? The guns were too easy; the bombs, they made themselves. In a pizza parlor. And on the day, when these two began making life-and-death decisions over their fellow students, their victims – those who survived – could still not explain why they did what they did. Never mind the parents. All four of the parents involved begged off; they had no clue. The entire scenario was chilling and inexplicable. And the deed, in multiple variations, continues to take place.
Do these students have any answers? In a dialogue after the show, Jacqui Athenien had one: vote. Because she and another cast member are 17, and will be 18 by November, they were allowed to vote in the primaries. But beyond that, there were only questions. They did tell us that "thoughts and prayers" don't cut it. That's just a way to silence the outcry. They want to know when their elders are going to step up. They are doing everything they can. Each of the students e-mailed all their teachers, inviting them to come see the show and bring their students. Few responded, and the cast just doesn't get it. They thought every teacher would want to come. And they continue to perform; they present this show four times a weekend, then go back to school on Monday morning. And they continue to ask their questions. And they continue to get pretty much the same answers, which is to say, none at all.
If young people, kids who weren't even around when these events took place, are willing to ask these questions, isn't it about time they – we – got some answers? And all the relatives of all the students we have lost since that time; don't they deserve a reckoning? I am of their parents' generation; but I have no answers for them. Why is that? Why aren't those who should be able to "get things done" doing something about a crime that continues to rob innocents of their very lives? And why is it up to those so young to remind us to ask?
columbinus has closed its run in Pittsboro, but if you didn't get a chance to see the show, never you fear. The company is remounting the production for two more performances on Sunday, March 22 at 2:00 and 6:00 in Raleigh at Burning Coal's Murphy School theater. I really think you owe it to yourself to see this show. And even if you don't agree with me, I also believe that you owe it to the student performers. And that responsibility, dear reader, seems more difficult to cast aside.