July 7, 2016, is a day North Texans will always remember. During a peaceful protest against recent police shootings that left black men dead in Louisiana and Minnesota, a heavily armed man opened fired on police officers working the protest in downtown Dallas. Five officers were killed. Nine were injured. Several civilians were wounded in the attack.
Cry Havoc Theater Company, a relatively new company that focuses on giving teenagers a voice, was in rehearsals for their summer Festival of Independent Theaters show when the attacks happened. The teens were overwhelmed by the story and the shootings. Cry Havoc artistic director Mara Richards Bim decided then that their next show would be a devised piece looking at race relations in Dallas.
This won’t be the first project the company has undertaken that explores a real life event. Their summer show, Good Kids by Naomi Iizuka, was based on the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, case, in which a girl’s gang rape by fellow students was filmed and posted on social media.
These are heavy subjects for kids to unpack. Bim, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and former fundraiser for New York’s MCC Theater, returned to Texas to work in theater education. After a stint at the Dallas Theater Center, Bim created Cry Havoc to give teens a platform to explore issues and events that were weighing on the kids in real ways.
Their winter production, Shots Fired, is based on the 2000 play by Tectonic Theater Project, The Laramie Project, about the reaction to the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming gay student Matthew Shepard. The murder was denounced as a hate crime and brought attention to the lack of hate crime laws in various states, including Wyoming.
That play drew on hundreds of interviews conducted by the theater company with residents of the town, company members' own journal entries and published news reports. Actors portrayed more than 60 characters in a series of short scenes.
For Shots Fired, Bim and her teens conducted interviews throughout Dallas including with police, community members, therapists, Black Lives Matter supporters and Blue Lives Matter folks. They spoke to the surgeon on call that night, Dr. Brian Williams, who worked on the shooting victims, as well as Mark Hughes, a man originally (and falsely) identified as a suspect in the shootings. The show will be created from these interviews as well as the teens’ journals and debriefing conversations.
“We certainly don't expect to solve anything,” Bim says. “But our young actors [and audiences] are some of the most diverse in town. And they have a lot to say. As one teen put it while sobbing the day after the shootings, ‘the adults are fucking up the world for us.’”
I spent time with Bim’s kids on a Saturday, one day into their school holiday breaks. It was the day the cold snap came in. The wind picked up outside and temperatures dropped. This group of young adults sat reverently in a circle unpacking a long, emotional day of interviews. After each interview, the teens participate in “debriefings” to talk about what they’ve learned and how to process it.
If you tend to assume that all teens are vapid, technology-obsessed creatures without independent thoughts, these people will surprise you. “I actually have a flip phone so I didn’t know about this at all,” Elijah says.
Scarlett speaks next. She lives on Main Street downtown and heard gunfire from her home.
“I didn’t really believe it at first,” she says. “I didn’t think it was gunshots at first. I was very scared. My family is very involved in the downtown community. I was just happy to be inside.”
Her best friend, Cara, chimes in. “This is my girl. We had just left rehearsals and went to a restaurant. We saw the footage on TV and talked to the people in the restaurant about it. I had to check on her to make sure she was OK,” Cara says. “Of course, I didn’t want her to get out, but I told her she could come stay with me.”
None of these kids were glued to their phones when it happened. In fact, that’s not even how they knew about it. De’Aveyon didn’t find out until he got home and talked to his mom. They watched the news together all night.
Stakiah’s sister was at the protest. Her mother picked her up and they drove to get her sister. Her mom was too upset to even tell Stakiah what was going on at first.
Lucky is black. He talks about how he was scared, on edge, how he thought about the Los Angeles riots. His cousin is a police officer.
As they started their interviews they realized almost everyone they spoke to had some sort of connection to the shooting. They started on the fringe of the incident and worked inward, finding people who were there, and in one case, one of the civilians who was shot. She was there with her children.
“Everyone we talked to had a relation to the shooting. These are people with all different beliefs, but they were all emotionally touched,” Cara says.
“As we moved closer to the shooting, we found great insight from these people. We really sympathized with them. We’ve discovered how much it has impacted their everyday lives,” Scarlett adds.
Bim and co-director Ruben Carrazana started with a “wish list” of interviewees they’d like to find. They did tons of research to find people involved. They found videos online and tracked down the people who took the footage and then reached out to them.
I ask the teens if there’s any danger in taking the stories and putting their own spin on it. They immediately shoot me down.
“We aren’t changing anyone’s words at all. But we get to insert our emotions into it.”
It’s true. The interviews are all recorded and then transcribed word for word. The transcriptions and debriefings are culled down into a script.
“Our take on this doesn’t change what they’ve said, but it does make it more real when we present it,” Trinity says.
They tell me that there is an urgency to talk about this, how this platform gives them a chance to be taken seriously. Most of these students have never done a project like this outside of Cry Havoc.
I ask them if they feel like they are ever taken seriously. They reply with a resounding, emphatic “no.”
They don't get their information from memes and fake news sites. They say they understand the way social media distorts information and do research to get at the facts. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace, but they are growing with it.
“Just because it’s on our phone or on TV doesn’t mean it’s real,” Trinity says. “We know that.” She goes on to say how their place, stuck between adulthood and childhood, is a difficult limbo.
Bim, a new mother herself, says she’s been so impressed with the work the kids do.
“It is so exciting to direct them. They don’t come in with preconceived ideas about how they work. They are so open.”
Bim brought her 8-day-old baby girl to their summer rehearsals. This group of students has given her hope for the future.
“I was so depressed during the election cycle. But these guys have such a sense of hope and purpose. It has been good for me to work with them.”
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The kids all kept up with the election, watched the debates and followed all the politics.
“Adults don’t let us talk. But this is a very open environment,” Scarlett says. “It’s OK to say something, even if it’s wrong. It’s a safe space to share so much knowledge and grow together.”
“What’s the point in talking to the same people all the time?” Cara adds. “You don’t learn anything new. It’s always good to talk to new people.”
See Shots Fired Jan. 6-14 at Margo Jones Theater, 1121 1st Ave. Tickets are $8-$13 at ticketdfw.com.