Six years ago, I was asked to write a play addressing the urgent issue of gun violence in America. One that would be staged in the immediate run-up to the 2016 presidential election as a featured selection of the storied New York International Fringe Festival. A last chance to collectively grapple with America’s signature paradox – the sanctity of the Second Amendment in a country with 30,000 gun deaths a year – and to do so in the comparative safety of a theater.
The clock was ticking down on the Obama administration, along with nearly eight years of paranoid rhetoric that “Obama is coming for your guns.” When a family member said that very thing to me in January of 2016, I replied that if Obama really is going to go door-to-door and take all the guns (and the Bill of Rights) away from 65 million gun-owning households, well then, he had better hurry up, I said. Because he was running out of time.
And then I wondered, wait a minute … What if he did? In a play, anything can happen. Because theater is make-believe – just like the dubious notion that Obama might actually take anything from anyone was pure make-believe.
I knew from the start my play would be an homage to two of the greatest plays ever written. “Waiting for Godot” is Samuel Beckett’s absurd masterpiece about two men who wait around all day, every day, for a visitor who never comes. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” tells the story of the most ordinary small town in turn-of-the-century America. And in doing so, it tells the story of every town in America. I called it “Waiting for Obama.”
It was Club Q that had me thinking back to my play this week, while we are all trying to make sense of the senseless massacre. Because, I also knew from the start that my play would be set in Colorado Springs. Had to be. Maybe it was the massive military industry that powers much of El Paso County that made it a no-brainer. Maybe it was the city’s pronounced conservative/progressive divide. The meaningful majesty of the Garden of the Gods. The icky Ted Haggard scandal. Focus on the Family. NORAD, which oversees air defense for all of North America. The Air Force Academy. As you might imagine, the military accounts for about 40 percent of the city’s economy, which to some might project a false sense of safety and natural order.
But the kicker, for me, was learning that Colorado Springs has a park named America the Beautiful. What better place for a play about guns in America than the home of America the Beautiful Park?
“Some awfully strange things happen in Colorado Springs,” Martha, the matriarch of the family, tells our mysterious visitor in the play.
Colorado Springs, of course, has had its share of mass gun violence. One day in 2015, the year before I wrote my play, several people called 911 to say they saw a man walking down the street carrying a rifle right out in the open. And the 911 operator told them all there was nothing the police could do because in Colorado Springs – he wasn’t breaking the law until he actually started shooting. And he did, killing three people. Three weeks later, a man walked into a Planned Parenthood and killed three in a standoff that lasted five hours.
Back in 2007, a man opened fire at a youth missionary training center in Arvada, killing two, then drove to Colorado Springs and opened fire at New Life Church, killing two more before he was stopped by a heroic member of the church’s safety team. I was thinking about Jeanne Assam this week as the world rightly celebrated the former Army major who took down the Club Q shooter – with the help of a trans person who has yet to receive the same level of media adoration. Ironically, Assam was shunned by that same scandal-plagued New Life Church after reports championing her heroism also outed her her to be gay. The hypocrisy was thick.
Colorado Springs just felt like the natural epicenter for my story to play out. “This city is a magnet for pro-life, pro-gun evangelical Christians,” Martha says of her hometown in the play.
“I like to call it home,” her husband, Hank, retorts. Colorado Springs, he fully believes, offers the most freedom a man can have anywhere in America.
But, in truth, Colorado Springs isn’t special when it comes to gun violence. It’s Our Town. It’s Your Town. It’s Everytown USA. Consider that there were 600 mass shootings in the first 327 days of 2022.
“Waiting for Obama,” which was directed in New York by Denver native Brian Freeland, introduces a loving but fractured family that is deeply invested in the gun issue. It focused on a father and grown son who agreed on only one thing: That Obama was coming for their guns. Of that, they were certain – and neither was going to give theirs up willingly. The conservative father because he was a Constitutionalist and a card-carrying member of the NRA. His progressive son because he had been a victim of gun violence. Every night, these two stand vigil in their respective doorways with AR-15s strapped to their shoulders, waiting for the bogeyman to show up. And in my play, he does.
Like “Our Town,” “Waiting for Obama” takes place in an impossible world that is based in absolute reality. Your “Our Town”-like narrator is a 16-year-old boy who lives on the roof. (Seriously, he never comes down. And it snows in Colorado Springs – a lot.) “It can get awfully loud downstairs,” the boy says of every living room in America, and specifically his own. “I like to come up here and listen to the quiet.”
But that quiet is constantly interrupted by gunfire from around the world and his own backyard. The boy, who is named Benny (after a real kid named Ben who actually grew up in Colorado Springs), can see everything that is happening in the far-off distance and reports it back to us, as if he is our eyes on a world gone mad. There’s a murder-suicide in Phoenix. A family fight in Florida. A home burglary in South Florida. These all real-life incidents that took place around the time of my play. It is Benny who, from the roof, first sees the solitary stranger approaching who might just be the outgoing President of the United States.
The play necessarily engages in some of the “gotcha” rhetoric of it all. The requisite chest-bumping over the Second Amendment and what a “well-armed militia” does and doesn’t mean. Facts, statistics and loopholes are exploited. A race card or two is played. There’s talk of the suicide epidemic and our ongoing mental-health crisis in America. When Hank zings Obama for the high murder rate in his home state of Illinois, which has the toughest gun laws in the nation, Obama quips back that most Illini get their guns next door in lax Indiana, “where you can get a gun for (passing gas) out loud.”
But, mostly, “Waiting for Obama” is the story of a family probably not unlike yours, fighting their way through the daily noise of gunfire and toxic rhetoric. It’s ultimately about a boy who can’t come down from the roof because the ground below is just too scary a place to live on.
In retrospect, I can say that Colorado Springs is very much an essential character in this story. But it’s merely standing in for Dallas; Chesapeake, Va.; Hennessey, Okla.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Philadelphia; Temple Hills, Md.; Houston; Costa Mesa, Calif.; and Chicago. Those are the nine cities where there have been mass shootings since Club Q. Six days, 18 dead, 29 wounded.
Ever since Columbine, it seems pundits have been asking: “What is it about Colorado?” But this problem is a poisoned plant with a river of blood-red roots running through it. Anderson Lee Aldrich was born in Orange County, Calif., and, if reports are to be believed, grew up in a family environment that would make Joe Exotic blanch. Aurora shooter James Holmes was born in San Diego and moved to Colorado just two years before that massacre.
The question is not: “What is it about Colorado?” It’s: “What is it about America?”
In his farewell address to the nation in 2017, the real-life Barack Obama proffered that our potential as a nation will only be realized if our democracy works. A democracy that was built on principles — the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and an independent press.
“But that order is now being challenged — not only by violent fanatics, but by our own fear,” he said. “Fear of change, fear of our neighbors, fear of difference, fear of real information. By intolerance of contrary thought. By a belief that the sword or the bomb or the gun is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.”
If only our politics, he said, better reflected the decency of our people.