It’s been just over 20 years since the Columbine High School massacre, where two students attacked their school with bombs and firearms, ultimately killing themselves as well. A total of 15 were killed, 24 injured. In the time since then, mass shootings have only become more and more commonplace. At this point, it isn’t paranoid to fear your school, workplace, even grocery store being shot up. It’s only reasonable.
Coming from Jake Nice Productions and AT&T Performing Arts Center, Thomas Ward’s play Slide By takes us back in time to just a week after the Columbine shootings. Looking closer at the societal conditions that form mass shooters, the play follows a day in the life of Chad, a teacher subbing at his own former high school. The school is reeling in the nationwide aftermath of the Columbine shootings. In dealing with his own traumatic experiences and failures in life, Chad begins to exhibit the characteristics of a mass shooter.
There are a lot of issues at hand when considering what leads to acts of mass violence. The play deals with sexual abuse, hazing, bullying, drug use, hopelessness, isolation, to name a few. Jake Nice, director and producer of Slide By, organizes these issues into the bigger categories of “institutional corruption” and “cycles of abuse and violence.” These are the macro pieces that frame the play and its finer tuned messages.
The cycles of abuse and violence that Nice references mean the effects of bullying, sexual abuse, drug abuse, teen suicide — what he characterizes as “sensitive subject matter.” These are important themes to examine not in order to better understand their victims, but to understand their perpetrators. How are bullies affected by their own actions? What happens to the person who constantly uses drugs as a numbing agent? Much of what contributes to Chad’s teetering toward violence comes from his own high school background: He was once a state championship wrestler, and now, an aimless 20-something. He’s failed the expectations put upon him both by himself and all those around him. The play shows how these cycles lead to feelings of hopelessness and defeat. These feelings can in turn incline one toward acts of mass violence. We are reluctant to sympathize with bullies or violent attackers, but that’s exactly what this play asks us to do.
And yet, in sympathizing with these people, we should in no way romanticize or respect their actions. “Suffering is suffering and it’s not glorified in anyway,” says Nice. The number of victims not only of mass violence but of bullying, hazing and sexual abuse are atrocious; but by approaching their oppressors, we can try to solve the problem at its root. If we better understand what leads people to acts of mass violence, can we help them before they become violent?
On the other side of things is institutional corruption. This isn’t about the perpetrators of violence themselves, but about the institutions and people of authority who (perhaps unintentionally) foster violence. In the play, teachers at the school become aware of Chad’s potential danger to the school — and yet, privacy policies prohibit them from even talking about it.
A more widespread aspect of institutional corruption is gun regulation, a contentious topic by anybody’s standards. One would hope that the eruption of massacres across the United States after Columbine would lead to a complete overhaul of gun policy. Instead, we find ourselves in as precarious a situation now as we did 20 years ago.
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A conversation about gun policy is wont to become purely political, but this play wants to turn the conversation back to its roots: the right to safety and security. Without taking a political stance, Slide By perpetuates the overarching and simple truth that mass violence is bad — and it’s an issue that needs to be considered on a personal level regardless of political standpoint. This play steps away from policies and laws, and asks audience members to look at gun usage and mass violence from a place of human compassion.
However, the play will also help audience members navigate the tricky conversation of gun violence. The people behind Slide By have teamed up with the organization Moms Demand Action, which looks at the issue of gun violence not with the goal of promoting a political party, but from the perspective of protecting our families. They will be present at each show and will also contribute to the post-show conversations. But one needn’t be present for a post-show conversation in order to guide their own ideas about gun violence and the other issues this play deals with — this play acts as a spark to light these conversations among its viewers.
But if you’re concerned that your drive home after seeing such a heavy play will be too somber for you to bear, worry not: Slide By is, in fact, a comedy. How does a story treating mass violence in such depth have any room left to be funny? Much like in life, the depth is aided by the humor. These issues would be almost impossible for audiences to appreciate without the guidance of humor. Playwright Thomas Ward has crafted a situation ripe for both incredible depth and incredible humor: a troubled young man, a drug-dealing janitor and a high school are just the ingredients for a story about gun violence. But they’re also the ingredients for an uplifting comedy. Slide By promises to be both.
Slide By runs Jan. 16-26 at the Wyly 6th Floor Studio Theatre, with post-show conversations after the matinee performances on Jan. 18, 19 and 25, and after the evening show on the 23rd. Tickets are available at attpac.org/slide-by.