As I sat writing this story this morning, a bulletin flashed on my computer: a Virginia TV reporter and her cameraman were shot to death on live television, apparently by a disgruntled ex-employee (the suspect then shot and killed himself) .
There are an estimated 300 million guns in circulation in this country — nearly one for every man, woman and child. This week, a study concluded that the United States, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, accounts for nearly a third of all mass shootings worldwide. At the same time, the nation’s largest movie theater chain, Regal, added a bag and purse security check following shootings this summer of moviegoers in Louisiana and Tennessee, and the man responsible for killing 12 people and injuring 70 others at a theater in Colorado in 2012 has been formally sentenced to life in prison.
But amid the grim statistics, reminders and latest shooting, there is a glimmer of hope in the form of a new play by actor and writer Eric Ulloa, 26 Pebbles, based on the tragic 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn. That community may teach us about the power to transcend victimization and how to heal.
Many of us thought the slaughter of first graders would be the wake-up call the country needed to jolt us from our slumber over gun violence.
There was a dramatic reading of the play this week at a packed house at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage theater. In vivid detail, six actors read the actual words of more than two dozen Newtown residents who recounted the moments leading up to the carnage at the school and the chaos and confusion that followed as parents frantically tried to determine if their children were dead or alive.
Searching For Meaning In Stories
Many of us thought the slaughter of first graders would be the long overdue wake-up call the country needed to jolt us from our slumber over gun violence. I myself worked on a PBS documentary, part of the After Newtown series on America’s gun culture, convinced this was the defining moment in the gun debate. What could be more wrenching?
There were 20 six- and seven-year-olds cut down in their classrooms and six other adults, including the school principal, also shot dead. Ulloa would title his play based on a phrase used by Newtown resident Yolie Moreno: “26 Pebbles. That’s exactly what happened. Each one of those drops in a pond. It just emanates out. The ripples, the vibrations — it’s life. This stuff spreads.'”
Ulloa was angry about Newtown even six months after the event. “Something in me clicked beyond the horror,” he said. “I can’t just keep saying ‘Oh, that’s horrible and keep compartmentalizing and move on.” So he headed to Newtown and asked people to tell him their story. By the fifth or sixth person of what would become dozens, it hit him.
Said Ulloa: “It looked like Grover’s Corners from Our Town. What if there was a horrific shooting at Grover’s Corner? How do the residents deal with it? And that’s how the play came to be.”
In the play, Rabbi Shaul Praver describes the morning of the shootings: “I had a ten o’clock appointment with a Bat Mitzvah girl and her parents. At uh, ten o’ three, the father, who’s a fireman, apologized and said that he had to go, called away from our final rehearsal. He says, ‘There’s been a shooting at the school.’ Fifteen minutes later he texts, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.’ And then the phone rings and it’s Father Weiss’ secretary and she says, ‘All clergy down to the firehouse immediately!'”
Rabbi Praver and other clergy were ushered in to comfort parents who hadn’t yet been matched up with their children. It then fell to the Governor of Connecticut to deliver the worst news possible — that their kids hadn’t survived.
“People were falling on the floor, crying, tearing their hair out,” Praver recalled. And then the different clergy from different religions each stood to pray. “This was something that was very powerful for me. This was real religion,” said Praver.
Hearkening Back To Kennedy’s Assassination
For the boomers and older residents of Newtown, what Ulloa kept hearing that awful December day in 2012 was reminiscent of a November day nearly a half-century earlier. He uses the words of Carole Ross, then a 60-year-old Newtown Human Resources Director, in 26 Pebbles: “The safety of this little town, it’s like when Kennedy died, that peace overall has been shattered. The shattering of the illusion of our little world. How did this happen to us?”
“If anything,” Ulloa says, “it was more painful for older people in the community. Most had been born and raised in Newtown, some had 35 or 40 years, some had 65 years in this town. They were of an era when these things didn’t happen in their perfect, safe little hamlet, that someone picks up a gun and kills kids.”
Newtown had become an international story. And Moreno became so concerned her hometown would be forever known for the Sandy Hook shootings that, in the play, she tells her friend: “I’m gonna make a sign and it’s gonna say ‘I am love, I am Newtown’ and I’m gonna sit at the highway exit. Exit 10. So it’s the first thing they see when they come in and the last thing they see when they leave.” And she did, in the cold, outside Newtown’s most popular diner.
Events Spur Action
Molly Smith, Arena Stage’s Artistic Director, became a citizen activist after Newtown, after learning of the shootings on a train from New York to Washington, D.C. She recalls turning to her partner, Suzanne Blue Star Boy, and saying, “Oh my God, all of these children, these teachers, these babies.” Suzanne replied: “Somebody has to do something about it.” They organized a March on Washington for Gun Control a month after the shootings.
Smith told the audience Monday night she thought she was too busy to stage 26 Pebbles. Then came the mass shooting at the movie theater in Lafayette, La. “I said, ‘That’s it. I can’t sit back. You step forward or you don’t.'” She adds: “I don’t know if there is any more effective or powerful tool than the theater. I’ve already received notes from five different theaters and universities wanting to do their own reading of it. That’s a ripple effect.”
As for Rabbi Praver, he left his Newtown congregation this summer. His Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has dissipated over time. Now, he ministers to prisoners, is anticipating the release of his book about the shootings and has embarked on an effort to bring gun rights and gun-regulating communities together for a dialogue to find common ground and build trust.
You don’t always think of wisdom spilling from the mouth of a six-year old. But perhaps the wisest and most hopeful words in 26 Pebbles came from a young boy who survived the massacre in a classroom adjacent to the shootings. He stood up in front of his synagogue just months after his classmates were gunned down and said: “Every day there are shadows. But every day there is light too.”