Edinburgh Fringe 2022
A cast of university students addresses gun violence America through songs and stories.
I’m gutted. I’m shaking. I’m enraged. I’m holding back tears as I leave the theatre. That is the power of Americana, A Murder Ballad, playing at Assembly Checkpoint until August 17. Sandy Hook. Uvalde. Columbine. Parkland, Orlando, Aurora. We should know these names because of the wonderful communities they represent, yet we recognize them for the locations where children, teachers, and patrons were killed in places that should have been safe: a restaurant, a night club, a school. On November 7, 2018, a Marine veteran dressed in black and armed with a .45-caliber Glock handgun shot his way into a Southern California bar crowded with college students, killing 12 people before turning the gun on himself. One of the victims was 18-year-old Pepperdine University student Alaina Housley. This play is dedicated to her and to the Pepperdine class of 2020. It is an exploration of gun violence in America and the situations that foster it. It is a story that must be told – again, and again, and again.
The talented cast of 12 university students presents profiles of people whose anger leads to a gun. Each scene is a self-contained vignette that profiles a typical situation encountered by students. Whether it is from bullying, anxiety, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, drug addiction, sexual identity, or other causes of frustration, the characters are driven to using a gun as a solution to their problems. The actors portray the characters in a charismatic manner, so that the audience feels empathy for their situations – until the gun is produced. Then boom – shock – “it’s never a girl with a gun….It’s always the quiet ones.”
With a constant barrage of media coverage of mass shootings, the public can become numb to the effects of these events on young people. In this play, we meet those people whose lives will be changed forever by a single decision often made in haste. The show brings that reality to us in living colour. The characters could be the kid next door, your bartender at a local pub, your son or daughter’s best friend. By portraying them as typical members of society, the actors hammer home the message that extraordinary and disastrous actions can often be taken by ordinary people, driven to drastic measures.
Recorded versions of murder ballads, such as “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley”, are woven through the stories, creating an eerie impact. Those songs are generally country and western tunes that deal with dark themes, and, of course, gruesome murders. They were the “true crime” tales of the day. The “true crimes” of today are now the mass shootings.
The outstanding original music by Davey Anderson is performed live in the style of opera, where all of the story is sung. Scene changes are punctuated by the cast performing the theme song, ironically to the tune of Yankee Doodle, with arms in the air declaring that this is Americana. Lighting and sound effects create dramatic moments for an otherwise simple set of steel girders.
Each of the performers brings strength to the production. Each one deftly portrays a likeable character, a football hero, a beauty queen, a student, and more, but with the commonality of a recurring nightmare. The members of the backing band on banjo, guitar, double bass, keyboard and drums also double as singers. The feature roles in the stories are evenly distributed amongst cast members, which solidifies the piece as truly ensemble. Their work is seamless and flawless. All of them are strong singers, staying perfectly in tune even when unaccompanied. There is a separate off-stage narrator who effectively plays the part of the writer, a central character that has written a story about the violence. As the play unfolds, he becomes the macabre conductor and director of the narrative.
Bravo to Playwright Morna Young, an award-winning Scottish playwright and musician, who wrote the book and the lyrics for the impactful songs. Director Cathy Thomas-Grant and Producer Alex Fthenakis brought this story forward in a compelling and riveting production. Standing ovation to a strong cast: bandleader Ben McGarvey; musician/singers Lauren Lorati, Matthew Hamm, Brykell Killingsworth, and Ryan Koss; singers Penny Devlin, Kayla Bryant, Sam Brock, Juliet Johnson, Spencer Williams, Haley Powell, and Zoe Prior; and Cole Wagner as the Writer. Power and Prior are at the Fringe as part of the successful Pepperdine Scotland cultural exchange programme which enables students to work with leading Scottish theatre-makers to create a work addressing a social justice issue and present it at the Edinburgh Fringe. Pepperdine Scotland is a previous winner of two Fringe Firsts.
By July 5, 2022, there were 351 mass shootings in the U.S. All of these actors were born after the school mass shooting in Columbine, Colorado. How tragic that they have never known a world without active shooter drills. And why should the phrase “active shooter” even be in the vocabulary of these young people? They must keep telling this story. As they note in the show, as teenagers they are too young to vote but there is power in their words: “we accept this until the day we say ‘no’. We are all part of the cycle.”. Time for thoughts and prayers is over. Will the play change hearts and minds? Maybe. The work raises the question of what is freedom. The writing might open some eyes or move some to take action. We can hope.
This show should be performed in every major theatre in America and is a “must see” at the Fringe. I vote for taking it to Broadway.