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Feature Thu Feb 07 2013
On April 20, 1999, when I was 9 years old, I arrived at my elementary school in Lakewood, CO early like I always did. I liked to play outside on the blacktop with my friends before class began. It was such a normal morning. By the end of the day, all of the doors to the school would be locked and none of us would be allowed to leave the building until our parents came in to get us.
On April 20, 1999, Colorado changed forever. At 11:19am, 10.3 miles south of my elementary school, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris began the massacre that claimed the lives of 12 students and one teacher, and injured countless others at Columbine High School. Before Columbine, a school shooting had never been heard of in Colorado. Since 1999, there have been many.
The shooting happened 13 years ago, but I woke up this morning feeling as though it was yesterday. Last night, I was a guest at the American Theater Company's performance of Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli's Columbinus, a three-act "theatrical discussion" of the tragedy based on old and new interviews with survivors and their parents, and one of the best productions I have ever seen.
I was 9 when the massacre took place, and I was very well-insulated from the cold, disturbing, and heartbreaking revelations that gripped Colorado for weeks after it happened. Thinking back now, I never saw a newspaper article about it, and although I caught glimpses of the makeshift memorial on the news, I was never exposed to the raw footage of the shootings or the many discussions of their consequences. Columbinus opened my eyes to the reality of the horror and gave me a sort of understanding of the senseless act. The play puts the audience on both sides of the gun and in the minds of the killers, who were in fact teenage boys struggling the same way we all did.
I spent the greater part of the day preparing for the show. I knew it was going to be heavy. I was already nervous when I walked in the theater to see a set comprised of a chalkboard and several metal desk chairs. The brilliantly written play began on a positive note. It took us all back to high school -- to the annoyance of our 7am alarm clocks; to the never-ending debate of what to wear for the day; to the insecurities involved in bridging out from our own set cliques; to the awkwardness of crushes -- things that are all familiar and fond to us in retrospect. However, from there, the comedy disappears altogether.
The audience is privy to the thoughts inside each of the students' minds -- the helplessness and desperation to fit in, the rejection of authority figures, the repulsive notion of having nowhere to turn, and most chillingly, in the minds of Klebold and Harris, the desire for godliness and power above the law and life itself. The lines leave you raw. They drag out everything you have struggled to repress. They force you to confront things that you're more comfortable tucking away beneath the fogginess of memory. By the end of the first act, I was left wondering how any of us survived high school at all. How did we get out alive after being trapped in the pressure cooker that is teenagehood?
The whole production has a sickening tone to it. We all know what's coming, what already happened 13 years ago. Yet, sickening does not mean unmoving. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Columbinus is so moving and intense that the two 10-minute intermissions are essential. The human heart can't handle the tension and tragedy of what we already know will happen.
Already, the play has managed to raise questions about the state of our high schools. The first act makes strong statements about parental involvement and school counseling, and once again brings to attention the ethical issue of school censorship -- whether a school should take action against what it deems to be out of the ordinary behavior or if that is too slippery a slope.
I am having trouble finding words for the second act. It takes the audience and puts them in the library at 11:19am on April 20, 1999. You are there. You see your friends get shot. The madness of Klebold and Harris surrounds you and you cannot escape. There are no props in the second act, not even guns. There was nothing "real" about the scene on the stage in front of me, and yet, it is the most real situation I have ever found myself in. The act went by in a flash of intensity, so much so that when the house lights came up for the second intermission, no one moved, no one spoke, no one breathed. The audience just stared ahead in awe, feeling so much, but feeling only a fraction of the terror that took hold that day. Somewhere between the photos, the 911 recording, and Klebold and Harris's goodbye and suicides, we lost ourselves.
The last act of the show covered the hours, days and years after the massacre. Parents told where they were when they found out and how they reacted. The survivors told how they moved on. For some, the shooting inspired their career choices, while others turned to alcohol and drugs.
Then, there's a glimmer of hope. The cast tells the story of how the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park came to be erected. The monument serves as a place of peace and remembrance for those who lost their lives on that day so that we may never forget. Remembrance is also the reason that every person in Chicago should see this play.
I've never seen the memorial, but I remember visiting Clement Park a few years after the shooting with my best friend, Grace. We were too young to understand the implications of where we were, but I felt there like I had felt in only one other place -- church. I knew I was walking on hallowed ground.
This same hallowed ground played host to 15 crosses created by Aurora-based artist, Greg Zanis. The crosses sparked controversy. Many students and parents believed that Klebold and Harris did not deserve to be a part of the memorial. Hate, the very thing that drove the two boys to the massacre, continued to motivate those affected by the shooting. The vandalizing of the crosses, as well as dozens of vicious phone calls to Zanis, led the artist to take the crosses away. There are still so many questions surrounding the consequences of this tragedy -- chief among them is the thin line between honoring the dead and forgiving a haunting crime.
Years later, there is still controversy over releasing the tapes, 911 calls, and journals of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. The two boys wanted to change the world they lived in, and they did.
After the play was over, I was putting my coat on and turned around to see a man wearing a Colorado Rockies hat. He was Brian Stepp, one of the survivors. Simply seeing him humbled me. I wanted to talk to him; to ask him questions, but after fumbling around for a few minutes with what to say, I came up dry. I thought about making a joke about the Rockies' last season or bringing up Todd Helton's recent DUI arrest to ease into conversation, but what do you say to someone who has seen such horror? What questions do you ask someone who has already been asked a million questions about what he experienced?
The entire cast of the play deserves a shout-out. The acting was incredible and believable. The lighting design was spot on, they writing was flawless, and the directing brought the play together in the perfect way.
Columbinus plays every Thursday through Sunday through March 10 at the American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron Ave.Tickets are $38. The content is very mature and the play includes the use of strobe lights, smoke, and loud gunshot sounds.