Storytelling as Activism

By: Ashley Behnke ’19

When the most popularly produced playwright of 2017-2018 offers you her script for free as part of a national campaign of theatre activism against gun violence, it’s pretty impossible to say no. Playwright Lauren Gunderson was provoked to share her piece, Natural Shocks, after seeing the momentum young theatre kids from Parkland are inspiring nationwide. On the eve of the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, I, alongside the Davidson Theatre department, chose to join this movement–putting on a staged reading of Natural Shocks this past Thursday, April 19th.

This one-woman show brings the audience into a basement where our main character, Angela, is waiting out an imminent tornado. We are her listening ears, subject to the whim of any rambling thought. We begin to build a relationship–learning she is a gun-owner, a homeowner’s insurance agent (an ironic profession), and a constant worrier. This cleverly crafted narrative of her personal biography and relationship history helps us see her as a dynamic, flawed, but authentic human being, with quirks and secrets just like the rest of us. By the final pages of the play, we shockingly discover that the aforementioned tornado hurtling toward her safe haven is a dangerous man, her husband with a gun. We are brought to the sobering reality that Angela is not going to make it out alive. But before she is gone, she has some warnings for her audience. She lets us know that she will not be his only victim, he will drive to a place he knows well and fire on a crowd. And there is a chance anyone in the audience could be next. Gunderson lets the audience know that it is up to us, whether “to be or…not.”

I was struck by this ending during my first read and subsequent readings. I felt called to take action, a feeling I seldom experience in the theatre and I wanted to share that feeling with my Davidson community.

There is immense power in bringing the spirit of activism alive through storytelling. Storytelling has the ability to make politically charged issues relevant on the individual level by allowing audience members to be in an intimate space with the character and the story. We uniquely have the ability to walk in Angela’s shoes–to see her humanness and develop empathy for her very real hurting. This empathy can extend to the hundreds and thousands of women who experience abuse and violence every day. Violence is brought to our very doorstep. It was my hope that through sharing Angela’s story, we as a community would be moved to act.

Davidson students are incredibly busy, and in the days leading up to the reading I was nervous about our turnout. However, I was incredibly surprised by how many unfamiliar faces I saw in the audience. To me, this was particularly telling of the relevance and impact of gun violence on our generation and young people’s desire to learn more about the issue. While we had such a great turnout for the performance, our numbers dwindled to a small intimate group for the post-show discussion. It is often challenging to motivate audience members, in professional and collegiate settings, to remain after performances for post-show discussions (I’ve been there myself). However, I just want to encourage those who attend performances to hang around for the extra twenty minutes. Taking the time to reflect on the emotional and visceral journey you just witnessed and were a part of and critically engage with the playwrights content is essential for any kind of forward momentum.

It is very important to me that Davidson’s theatre department continue to produce plays that provide meaningful social engagement. I do not want to live in a bubble of self-gratifying theatre that does not participate in and contribute to current and important social issues. I want to provide a space where our audiences are able to have rigorous and active conversations about the action and issues presented on the stage. Producer Karli Henderson came to me with this amazing idea and I am so grateful for the opportunity to perform in and help produce such a meaningful form of activism. I am also utterly indebted to the lovely professor of sociology and budding actress, Dr. Natalie Deck
ard, the fantastic Kanise Thompson, and the brilliant professor of Hispanic Studies, Melissa Gonzalez, for their willingness to jump on board with this last-minute but important endeavor.

Ashley Behnke ‘19 is a Theatre and Sociology double-major from Bethesda, Maryland. Contact her at asbehnke@davidson.edu

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