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Teens wrote plays about gun violence — now they are being staged around the U.S.

The award-winning young playwrights of Enough! take a bow at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in November 2023.
Jati Lindsay
The Kennedy Center
The award-winning young playwrights of Enough! take a bow at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in November 2023.

American high school students, who were born after the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, are grimly accustomed to shooting drills and regular, if not daily, reports of gun violence on the news.

It was the 2018 school shooting at Parkland, Fla., that helped catalyze Enough! Plays to End Gun Violence. The yearly contest encourages young people to write plays addressing how ongoing shootings affect American lives. But founder Michael Cotey spent most of his professional life as a theater geek, not an activist.

"We're kind of always in a state of being bruised and battered," he told NPR during a run-through at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. "Sandy Hook happened. I'm in rehearsal for a play. The Las Vegas shooting happened. I'm in rehearsal for a play. Parkland happened. I'm in rehearsal for a play. And the same thing happened each time. All of us got really upset and incensed about it. Then we went on to making plays and making theater and going about our normal life."

While not personally touched by gun violence, Cotey found himself wondering, "What could we do? Like, what could theater do that we haven't done already? What play is out there that we could rally around?"

Then a Chicago-based actor and director in his early 30s, Cotey had worked on The Laramie Project, a much-performed, dramatic reflection about the murder of Matthew Shepard. It was staged simultaneously in theaters around the world in 2009. Cotey decided to enlist theaters and gun violence prevention groups in something similar, involving a high school playwrighting contest. Six winners would be staged on the same day in theaters across the country. Each short play, only 10 minutes long, would center on the effects of gun violence rather than the act of it. No scenes of shooting could be included.

"So the young people get selected, they get a stipend, they get produced, they get published, they get their plays workshopped, they get tons of feedback," Cotey explains. "Every writer in the program who submits a play gets feedback from at least three readers. And if you go through the process of getting to the point where you're a finalist, you get feedback from up to six readers, plus the selection committee."

The selection committee include leading playwrights such as David Henry Hwang, Tarell Alvin McCraney and Lauren Gunderson.

One of this year's winning playwrights, Niarra C. Bell, now studies acting in college. Her play, The Smiles Behind, is about a young girl confronting a police officer on the verge of shooting her teenage brother. Bell was inspired in part by violence committed against young Black men, including the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. "When tragic situations happen between African Americans and the police, we're quick to villainize police officers," Bell says. "So I really wanted to write a play not only from the perspective of an African American, but also someone who respects our police force."

Two young actors, Camilo Linares and Calvin Marshall, perform in Niarra C. Bell's play <em>The Smiles Behind.</em>
Jati Lindsay / The Kennedy Center
The Kennedy Center
Two young actors, Camilo Linares and Calvin Marshall, perform in Niarra C. Bell's play The Smiles Behind.

Other winning plays this year include a biting satire about the absurd failure of a "school kindness week" to prevent gun violence; another takes place behind the scenes of a 911 call center. The readings were staged in community centers, community theaters, schools and at not-for-profits.

"They're getting local people to come," Cotey says. "Maybe the mayor or a state senator [will] see these plays, respond to them, be a part of a conversation, and also get greater insight into what young people are thinking about."

This year's readings took place on Nov. 6.

For the past several years in South Bend, Ind., the Enough! plays have been staged at the South Bend Civic Theatre in conjunction with a group called Connect 2 Be The Change, founded by mothers who had lost kids to gun violence.

"One mom had lost two kids to gun violence," Cotey says. The organization now works to reduce gun violence by training young people to be "change agents." Now, some of those young people also perform as part of the staged readings.

When the Mayor of South Bend attended one year, the young actors were able to address him directly, Cotey says, as in, "Hey Mr. Mayor, you're not really doing as much as you should be doing."

The activist moms in Connect 2 Be The Change had not been theater people. But after the first reading, that changed. "One of them now works on the staff at South Bend Civic Theatre," Cotey says. "The second year, she's directing the plays with survivors in the community who she has cast because they align with the stories. Now this year, there's a march. They've got all these other partner organizations. They're working with the schools. It's become an important event for their community, and it's been a way that they can process and heal on this issue."

He pauses, fighting tears. "And when I made that one pager just out of frustration and hope that people would do this project, I had no idea that people would use it in that way."

Enough! still does not pay the bills for Michael Cotey. But his ambitions are growing. He would like to see the plays staged in every U.S. state, and at the White House, in front of the president.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.