“How do we solve America’s gun violence problem?” “What is your interpretation of the Second Amendment?” “What are your thoughts on the NRA?”
These are the questions a group of teens from Dallas, Texas have been asking strangers over six months—for a play. In Texas, guns are more than a tool, they are an identifying cultural marker. A friendly state to gun owners, Texas is the land of “open carry,” a law that allows firearm owners to carry weapons visibly in public places. You don’t have to drive far to find a gun range, hunting and sporting goods stores, or billboards advertising gun shows. It may be no surprise, but Texans love their guns.
But in recent years, that love has butted up against a growing national conversation on gun control, and calls from the public and politician to curtail gun violence. It is that conflict that Babel was born. Babel is a verbatim theatre work by Cry Havoc Theater Company that presents numerous voices in the gun debate—for, against, or ambivalent. I serve as the associate director and dramaturg for this project. Since the right to own a firearm intersects with multiple sociological issues—such as race, class, gender, healthcare, and religion—Babel focuses less on a metal object and more about how that object intersects with American identity.
Cry Havoc is a youth theatre company that devises theatre with teenagers, who then star in them—participants are 14 to 18 years old. Mara Richards Bim created the company to fill a void for teen performers in Dallas. Unlike other youth theatres, which tend to shy away from controversial topics, Cry Havoc believes teens are capable of much more than simplistic material and should have an artistic outlet to articulate their perspectives on various societal issues.
For many of the teens, the topic of school shootings is a constant concern; all of them have experienced school lockdown drills specifically for an active shooter situation. Jamaya Parker, one of the participants, reflects on the fact that the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas occurred during the development process. “It was bound to happen statistically,” she says. “It does make me sad from time to time, but that’s why we’re doing this show. Because it’s not going to stop.”
Three days after Stoneman Douglas, Cry Havoc visited a local gun range so that the teens had an opportunity to shoot firearms—including a 9mm, a .22 pistol, and an AR-15 (the gun used in multiple mass shootings, including at Stoneman Douglas). When one of the teens shot the rifle in its fully automatic setting, one of the gun range employees had to push back on their shoulder to stabilize them from the kickback. This was a particularly emotional day as the youth experienced the infamous firepower firsthand.
“It’s really important for a project like this that we capture all sides of the conversation, or as many sides as we can,” says Richards Bim. To create Babel, the creative team and the teens interviewed around 30 people. During spring break, we traveled to Newtown, Conn. to speak with survivors of Sandy Hook and to Washington D.C. to interview politicians and lobbyists on gun legislation—including our own Texas Senator John Cornyn. We also had discussions with experts in other fields related to guns, including a trauma surgeon, a constitutional law professor, and an economist. We also spoke to people who have lost loved ones to gun suicide.
To capture the perspective of gun owners, Cry Havoc also attended the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in May, which was held in Dallas this year. In order to attend, the teen actors in Cry Havoc had to become members of the NRA. Richards Bim initially expressed hesitancy in this decision. “I don’t support the way they demonize anyone that doesn’t agree with them,” she says. But in the end, “for the sake of the art, I felt like we needed those interviews.”
Cry Havoc spent most of the convention in the exhibition hall; teens set off in pairs to conduct interviews with NRA members. Parker found the immersion into firearms surprising. “I thought it was about guns, but it’s about more than that. It’s a way of life,” she says.
Parker and another teen interviewed a group of elderly white men, dressed in patriotic cowboy attire. She remembers that these men did not acknowledge her presence, Parker is African American; they constantly deferring back to the other teen (who happened to be white) for their answers. That didn’t surprise her, she said, “There is a difference between a black person with a gun and a white person with a gun.” While she acknowledges that not all gun owners are racist, at the same time, “I’m glad my membership expires in a year.”
The teens also interviewed a number of female NRA members, where they received a range of responses. Some women refused to be interviewed or deferred to their male partner to answer questions. A few female attendees seemed more sympathetic, noting that gun violence is a real epidemic in this country.
On the final day, a booth worker eavesdropped on an interview, and then expressed discomfort towards the presence of recording devices. Shortly after, the teens and videographer were approached by NRA security, which instilled some anxiety, as teen Sheldrick Pearl recalls. “It was kind of like scary, because I thought we did something wrong,” he says. Our experience at the convention concluded as NRA security and Dallas police escorted these teens out of the exhibition hall.
While it was a challenging experience for many, the youngsters admit that the convention challenged them to consider an alternative perspective. “It’s really easy when doing a piece that is topical to let our views slip on one side of the ‘see-saw,’” says participant Mary Bandy*.
Each member of Cry Havoc started this experience with a unique perspective on the gun debate—some of their families owned guns, others displayed hesitancy towards the idea of gun ownership, some of the teens knew people killed or injured by gun violence. And a few had no opinion on the topic whatsoever, and that evolved through the interview process. “I think it’s valuable for young people to learn how to ask questions and listen to people with whom they do not agree,” says Richards Bims.
Since leaving the NRA convention, Cry Havoc has dissected these interviews to build a play, set to premiere at AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas on July 5-15. A majority of the teens who conducted the interviews will also perform in Babel, playing themselves and the people that they spoke to.
While the dialogue honors many points of view, the design of the performance space also contains a memorial to lives lost due to gun violence. As part of an art exhibit calls “The Cenotaph,” dozens of strands containing suspended shoes enclose the performers and audience on all sides of the theatre. Each shoe represents a life lost to gun violence in the United States in 2018—with close to 8,000 shoes total. The shoes aim to be a reminder that this debate is not theoretical; it has real costs.
By placing these viewpoints together, the Babel team hopes that it will help those on both sides of the aisle have a productive, non-polarizing conversations. “This show has stressed the importance of calm conversation and finding common ground,” says Bandy. “Because if you’ve found common ground, you’ve won.”
Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based writer, teacher, and director.
*Mary Bandy’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story. It has been corrected.