“It’s just a drill, right?” someone asks across the classroom. We sit with our knees to our chests under the tables in a silent room. There’s no response. “Can someone tell us that this is a drill?” another voice asks. More silence follows.
On normal days in school, I was taught each of the primary subjects while simultaneously learning topics of survival. In kindergarten, I learned to trust my teachers when they made us run into open fields during bomb threats. In middle and high school, I was taught how to act dead and to utilize the power of silence during shooting drills.
If I’m being completely honest, I’d hardly reflected on these experiences. The business of life swept me off my feet and carried me away from what had occured. But the performance of “Church and State” at the Fine Arts Center, written by Jason Odell Williams and directed by Nathan Halvorson, brought back all my memories of what happens within the walls of a school building that many like to ignore.
This play follows Republican Sen. Charles Whitmore from North Carolina as he grapples with a local school shooting during his reelection. In his struggle to deal with the emotions that this event brings forth, he questions his stance on the Second Amendment and God. His position on these two topics had previously aided him in gaining strong Republican support at the polls, which ultimately led to his current seat in the Senate. However, he reveals his changing beliefs to a blogger who publishes it all on Twitter.
The play explores Whitmore’s battle with his own thoughts, those of his Christian wife, and the beliefs of his liberal campaign manager. Both his wife and campaign manager attempt to do damage control while Whitmore expresses his desire to break free of the repetitive speeches that he has presented in the past and to “speak from the heart” about this local school shooting and shootings in general.
The senator’s final messages left the crowd standing on their feet in applause:
“Liberty and the pursuit of happiness don’t mean squat if you’re worried about catching a stray bullet in the head while you’re out shopping for a toaster,” he said. “Do you think that the victims of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Tuscan, Aurora, Charlottesville, Orlando, [and] Las Vegas want us to sit on our hands for another 10 years? … No, they want change.”
In these moments, the play was both memorable and moving, leaving many in tears. The play’s transition from a lighthearted satire to a tragedy with deep emotion elicited gasps from the audience from beginning to end. After the play formally ended and the lights came back on, the audience sat still in silence for a moment. The gravity of hearing the names of just a few of the shootings that have occurred throughout the U.S. hit me, as well as the rest of the audience, with an overwhelming sense of loss, sadness, and a seemingly newfound passion for change.
Several days after viewing “Church and State,” the emotions that it inspired still linger. Simply put, the play exceeded all expectations, and I will be back because one time just isn’t enough.