THE FACULTY ROOM
WHERE AND WHEN:
Baby Boomers had nuclear air raid drills in school that stamped their souls with the realization that death is always close by. Their children now have lockdown drills, rehearsing what to do when a shooter is on the loose in the school. A nuclear attack never materialized (at least, not yet), but the present generation has Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech and a host of other massacres to remind them of their own mortality. The hard lockdown--when an imminent danger is known--is an unforgettable rite of passage for many people, and it is the setting of "The Faculty Room," the newest play by William Electric Black that is the fourth in his GUNPLAYS series. Theater for the New City will present its world premiere run April 13 to 30, directed by the author.
In this play, the faculty members of James Baldwin High School have found themselves in a mandatory lock down because two star players on the girls' basketball team have quarreled over a lover. Their argument has escalated to armed conflict because of the prevalence of guns in the school. Huddled together in the faculty room are the three women and a man. The middle-aged female security guard aims to manage the crisis with authority. The girls' phys ed teacher/basketball coach, who grew up in the neighborhood, has confiscated a pistol from one of her star hoopsters just the day before. The perky, idealistic teaching artist is relishing her first inner city teaching gig, hoping to inspire teens who have lost their way, lost their dreams, and lost family members. Finally, there is Mr. Cutter, a history teacher in his sunset years, who has taught his students that the epidemic of gun violence is just that, a disease.
The lives of two black girls are at stake. The manual says that in an event of imminent danger, all individuals, including safety officers, must not engage in any building sweep activity, but must take appropriate lockdown action and await the arrival of first responders. But will these people "do it by the book"? Will James Baldwin High School be on the news tonight? For certain, things will never be the same in its Faculty Room after today.
You can't understand a man, the proverb goes, until you've walked a mile in his shoes. But who, among us, has tasted the paranoia, dread and loss from gun violence that is, shockingly, common to urban high schools? This play is staged without a fourth wall so you can experience the situation first-hand: you sit right in the faculty room with the four teachers and, when they slip in, the hoopsters, who are surprisingly unperturbed by the whole experience.
"GUNPLAYS" is a series of five plays by William Electric Black addressing inner city violence and guns. In 2014, Black launched his GUNPLAYS series at Theater for the New City with "Welcome Home Sonny T," a drama that spotlighted two significant forces driving the current epidemic of gun violence: the social impact of alienation and unemployment on young black males and the declining influence of black ministers as a force of stability in affected neighborhoods. The second play in the series, "When Black Boys Die" (2015), premiered at Theater for the New City in 2015. The third, presented by Theater for the New City for 2016 Gun Awareness Month, was "Death of a Black Man (A Walk By)," a play with hip hop verse, chanting, songs and poetry.
William Electric Black's record with "activist" plays is admirable. In 2009, he directed Theater for the New City's sensational and serious "Lonely Soldier Monologues: Women at War in Iraq," a staged series of monologues based on a book by Helen Benedict. The play earned widespread notice and significantly helped the issues of America's female soldiers to be widely recognized for the first time.
In 2015, William Electric Black also issued a children's book, "A Gun Is Not Fun," and is now looking for community groups, businesses, government agencies, school systems, hospitals, and churches to underwrite the cost of printing so that children in Pre-K/1st & 2nd grade can get free copies.
Mr. Black speaks with anguish about recent shootings in our area, like the 13-year-old girl--a rising basketball star--who was fatally shot in Mount Vernon on New Year's Eve. He despairs that gun violence is still not regarded as a public health issue, as it should be. And he despairs of the prospect for constructive government action in the near future. "Trump said we should get the federal government involved in Chicago--send in the troops! Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, 'Why not through gun laws?' Nobody's listening."
He cites recent scholarship asserting that the Second Amendment was ratified (and why it says "State" instead of "Country") to preserve slave patrol militias in the southern states. "Today, for a whole class of people, guns plus prison plus lack of education equals modern slavery," he asserts. Gun possession is trending younger and younger and many inner city teens now pack guns in their backpacks rather than books. "If shots were fired around our daughters and sons in private colleges," he says, "we would snap into action. But society tolerates it in inner city schools, in our own back yards." Even kids who aren’t directly affected can be haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms for years. Gun suicides are on the rise among teens, he points out, and popular culture sensationalizes our armed culture to susceptible age groups. Recent surveys reveal more use of guns in PG movies nowadays than in R movies.
The actors are Ann-Kathryne Mills, Sarah Q. Shah, Brittney Benson, Kaylin Reed, Levern Williams and Mattie McMaster. Set design is by Mark Marcante and Lytza Colon. Costumes and props are by Susan Hemley. Lighting design is by Alexander Bartenieff.