You could tell the people from the Columbine community by how they reacted to the many gunshots in the show. Their whole bodies would flinch. And then they would breathe out deeply, compose themselves, maybe put an arm around the person in the next seat and re-engage, as if determined to get through the telling of this terrible, but now familiar, American story of students being shot dead in a place of learning.
At first, Wednesday night felt like an ordinary opening in a prosaic string of February first-nights of off-Loop theater. American Theater Company, which has neither a big marquee nor chaser lights, nestles easily and quietly into the relaxed neighborhood at Byron Street and Lincoln Avenue on Chicago's North Side. The usual suspects — actors, board members, press, envoys of the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee — were all milling around awaiting the opening of "Columbinus," the oral-history play about the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The creators, Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, the artistic director of this theater, had added a new third act to their drama, the result of Paparelli's having returned to Littleton some 13 years after the shooting to see what had happened to those who were its victims. The third act uses verbatim transcripts (actors play the real-life characters) in what is, really, a fusion of journalism and theater.
It makes some news. Brooks Brown, who was a close friend of the shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and who has written a book on the incident, is quoted as saying that while he long had stuck to the story that he did not know exactly what Klebold and Harris were going to do when he ran into them in the parking lot that day and they told him to go home, he did, in fact, have a sense that something terrible was going to happen. Klebold, he says in the interview, was just so serene.
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The show also projects a copy of the police report that was made when Brown's parents alerted the authorities in 1998 to a disturbing website created by Harris that seemed to suggest he was about to do exactly what he did. That warning sign was not adequately acted upon, a fact acknowledged in an interview in the show given by Kate Battan, who led the investigation for the Jefferson County sheriff's office. Then again, there were many warning signs discernible with hindsight. Heck, Harris was tinkering with a homemade pipe bomb at work, a pizza place. His father knew he was playing with pipe bombs. Nobody raised the alarm.
The second intermission Wednesday came after the re-creation of what happened when Klebold and Harris opened fire in the school library, taking their teenage revenge on those they perceived as their antagonists: jocks, pretty classmates, popular classmates, one of this white Colorado suburb's very few African-American kids, Isaiah Sholes, whom they shot for that reason alone, a fact that mostly got lost in 1999. "Now, when you think of Columbine, do you think of it as a hate crime?" one of his family members asks, pointedly, in the new section of the show.
By then it was clear that there were several people from Littleton throughout the theater and that this was anything but an ordinary night.
Some wanted to be anonymous and left alone. Some were OK to talk. After the show, one person willing to talk was Ruth Feldman, who had two kids in the school that day and knew most all of the kids who died. And I asked her why she was at the play. I'd noticed that she'd left the theater during the second act (the first act deals with the lives of Klebold and Harris before April 20, 1999) and had come back into the theater for the third. Feldman, who owns a Dairy Queen that employs mostly kids from Columbine, is a character in the show. "I couldn't watch the library part," she said, standing with her own kids, "so I went into the office."
But why put yourself through this at all?
"Do you know what the media did, right after the shooting?" she said. "No offense to what you do or anything, but they stuck microphones in the faces of our kids, our kids, as they were running out. 'Have you just come out of the school?' they asked. Well, of course they'd just come out of the school. Of course they'd seen what they'd seen. These were our kids." Feldman then thought for a moment. "I think, up until this point, everyone who has told the story of Columbine has done so with an agenda. This, finally, is just the story."
A real story, of course, with the messy complications of real life. At the end of that harrowing second act, Randy Brown, the father of Brooks Brown, asked me, very quietly, if I thought that people in Chicago would know that so much in the show was real, that it was taken from the ample writings and recorded ramblings of the shooters, that it was all true, even though so much that has been said about Columbine has not been true. Even Michael Moore, he said, "had ended up just making the movie he wanted to make."
I said I thought they would.
"This production is the real truth of Columbine," Brown said the morning after the show. "We have never stopped wanting the complete truth of what happened. There is something to be learned. Eric and Dylan were not crazy. Crazy is easy. They did the things they did because they had the motivations to do them."
And so what of the deeper truths here? Stories need context, and the context of Columbine shifts with the winds of time. "Columbinus" now includes first-responder recordings from Newtown, Conn. And then, of course, there is the whole matter of the increased push by the Obama administration for gun control, partly a reaction to what happened in Newtown and partly a reaction to what is happening on the streets of Chicago, within miles of American Theater Company. As the people of Littleton are very aware, the whole topic of school shootings has become deeply politicized. Even family members who have lost children are not above being harangued. People on each side of the debate scrutinize each narrative, each analysis, for a point of view on guns.
Now that it comes with the benefit of chronological remove, "Columbinus" is, all things considered, a very full and careful analysis of all sides of this incident. It has enough artistry to make connections, but not so much of an artistic agenda that it imposes on what actually happens. Clearly, the people of Littleton know this, which is why some of them were there. "Columbinus" therefore offers much food for thought for those whose duties in life involve the prevention of such horrible days for our children.
At one point in the play, Brooks Brown complains about how people in America are "fixated on a single solution when there is no single solution." Now a line like that can be anathema to gun control advocates, who tend to see it as another way to derail any changes in firearms laws. But this show reveals, as much as any meditation on school violence could reveal, that it is, without question, the hard truth. To be stopped, Klebold and Harris needed better parenting, better counseling, less cruelty in their school, more watchful employers, kinder peers and authority figures who were less tolerant and more willing to sound alarms when clear warning signals flared. Liberal and conservative sacred cows both got in the way of stopping this shooting. These two troubled young men also needed to not be able to get guns. That's quite a list, but we have redundancy systems built into many areas of our modern lives. Just not when it comes to kids shooting kids.
It seems simple, when you can see the whole story, from mundane beginning to the aftermath, 13 years later.
Nothing has healed, I was told Wednesday night. "It can be like yesterday," Brown said. "We're here because there are ways to stop these things if you don't have an agenda. You have to take the political things out of it: You can't take away all the guns or get all the mental health treatment that's needed."
"In Colorado, they're comfortable with the idea that nothing could have been done, and even now, there is really not an open dialogue about this," said his wife, Judy Brown. "That's just not true. There were signs everywhere. People just were not paying attention. Life is hard for our kids now: As parents, we have to open our eyes and listen to them."