“In Spite of Everything,” a spoken-word performance piece by The Suicide Kings, is a powerful, insightful, and often funny look at the way society treats young people and the way those young people treat society. Centering on a narrative recalling the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, the three actor-poets perform a series of vignettes highlighting different elements of youth violence. Several feature interrogations of the poets for possibly triggering the shootings during their poetry workshops. As one character says, “words are weapons.”
The actors portray kids who cut their faces to gut pimples (“my only friends were blood and pus”), who play chicken with guns to their heads in hazing rituals for gang membership, who live in fear from bullies and awful parents, who started taking drugs before the D.A.R.E. officer visited their class in 7th grade. They play the onlooker who, after seeing the massacre on television, happily and creepily declares, “Somebody finally did it!”
Rupert Estanislao, Jamie DeWolf, and Geoff Trenchard are all alumni from Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry episodes, and all actively involved in their local communities with arts education. “In Spite of Everything” has been touring for a while now, off and on: the performance seemed both rehearsed and slightly unpolished on Friday night. Each actor moved between comedy and tragedy with speed and grace. Still, at times, the production felt like an after school special with charged dialogue and grittier violence: take it easier on the kids, learn to express yourself in positive ways, and make a difference in the world. Newsweek and other weekly newsmagazines covered most of the same issues in 1999, but The Suicide Kings raise them again in a fresh style, reminding audiences that these problems have not gone away.
The play covers a lot of ground: cultural influences such as death metal music and first-person-shooter video games, televised violence, newscaster sensationalism that reduces complex situations to pithy epithets, adolescent acne and self-mutilation, feeling ugly, bullying and the teachers who ignore bullying, gangs in schools, child rape, parental and adult hostility to non-conformist youths, paternal embarrassment and antagonism towards “weak” sons, divorcees battling each other using kids as leverage, parental negligence and denial, easy access to guns in homes and elsewhere, the availability and hip-factor of hard drugs, suicidal thoughts and self-abuse, and the desire to become someone strong or immortal.
The performance asks not “Why are kids so violent,” but rather, “Why aren’t more kids violent?”
For example, one scene explores old video games vs. new video games. Tetris is extolled as a constructive, architectural, vision-building game, and Pac-Man is a harmless blob who eats mushrooms. On the other hand, Doom and other first-person shooter games replace the main character with the barrel of a gun, hit counts are equated with point counts, and the more brutal the death the greater the victory (and the heartier the laughs as an enemy character’s head is rent open). While research seems inconclusive as to whether these more violent video games instill a sense of violence in players—many people play first-person shooter games and never enact that violence, successfully separating fantasy from reality—there does seem to be an intuitive link. Our American army uses first-person shooter video games to desensitize soldiers to mass death. Yet thinking like this may lead us on a path to assert, as one character in the play does, that the childhood game of Tag is actually a “thinly veiled reference to mass murder.” I thought about Hide and Go Seek, too: ready or not, here I come…
One irate father, considered an expert by the newscaster covering the school shooting live from the station, says teachers need to strap up. “There are dead white kids!” he screams, neglecting the history of violence in some urban schools where gangs walk the aisles. School shootings hit the suburbs and America took notice. People examined the exit strategies for schools under siege, whether windows could open as exits, and rechecked police response times. A detective observing the scene of the crime dryly says that of course he sends his children to private school.
Many characters in the play distance themselves from the killer. The interrogators depict him as a lunatic sociopath. Fellow students act like he was not one of them, even the ones who knew him well. The parent of the killer complains that he feels like a criminal and has to change his name; that he does not get sympathy though his son died too; that he is a monster; and that he wishes his son would have killed him before the rampage. He is a selfish father who grieves for his loss of status more than for the loss of his son. Another character distancing himself from the shooter, a student and former childhood friend, claims that the killer replaced Guitar Magazine with Guns & Ammo, that they were supposed to “make ‘em deaf, not dead.” These characters do not want to take responsibility for the child killer, further highlighting the alienation he felt during his life and extending it into his death.
One of the poetry workshop teachers, who tried to make a connection with the student, confesses to the police that he told the killer, “Suicide is a temporary solution to a permanent problem.” The interrogators blame him for enabling the mass murder by talking about suicide as a solution at all. I was reminded of the controversy over Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” and the lawsuit that claimed Ozzy caused a boy to kill himself. Anyone who tries to connect with the killer becomes tainted, becomes a suspect too. It is a good thing we have people still trying to connect with these kids, who ignore social disapproval and try to make a difference.
At points during the play, I was reminded of Taylor Mali’s poem “What Teachers Make,” which ends with the line, “I make a goddamn difference! What about you?” [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw1MFobWD_o]. Mali, another spoken word artist, works in schools as well, and highlights the desperations and exultations of life in American public schools. One of the themes running through the play is whether wayward youths can reform themselves and help young people, especially using poetry as a medium for safe self-expression, maybe even a way to give these kids a feeling of accomplishment and belonging. Rupert has a wonderful scene where he talks about returning to his old high school a decade after his senior-year arrest, now a lauded poet and artist, only to be viewed with suspicion and turned away. What’s the point in trying to do good if people don’t give you a chance to reform?
The direction, by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, seemed largely understated: the actors seemed comfortable in their roles and easily traversed through multiple characters, from the bully to the victim, the teacher to the student, the parent to the janitor, and the newsman to the policeman. Several of the vignettes played on stereotypes: the interrogation sequences looked like typical scenes you’d find in a police thriller, and the newsroom pieces stocked cardboard cut-outs of on-screen personalities. Perhaps these elements of caricature were necessary to show us the gloss of contemporary news media or the aggression of police detectives, but they ran counter to show’s message: that there are real and deeper issues at stake than surface-level abstractions. Overall, the direction was effective and at times enthralling, perhaps no more so than during Jamie’s solo scene on his knees, talking about the first time he was forced to take a man’s penis into his mouth. Jamie whispered quietly and the house remained silent, listening forward to hear every syllable of that tortured confession.
Sam Bass’s cello served the production well, enlivening tension and drama, cueing scene breaks, and setting the scene for the nightly news and other sections. The set design was simple, using a few chairs while the actors pantomimed chalkboards, brooms, and microphones.
One father in the play claims that “parents are prologues,” our lives are under revision, and that our children should write their own stories. The Suicide Kings are writing their own stories and empowering others to do the same.
Posted by Dusty Hoesly