The curtain opens on a young man lying on a jail cot, haunted by the ghosts of four high schoolers—classmates he killed. William Matrosimone’s Bang Bang You’re Dead tells the story of a school shooting from the perspective of the perpetrator, a troubled teen named Josh who responds to years of bullying and insecurity by bringing his rifle to school.
San Jose State’s School Touring Ensemble Program, directed by Theatre Arts Professor Buddy Butler, performed the play at three Silicon Valley high schools in late November before arriving at the Hammer Theatre for free live performances December 4-7. Butler will host talk-backs following each show, culminating in a community discussion on December 7 involving the city of San Jose and local chapters of anti-violence groups Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action.
Butler said it is especially important to bring the performance to high schools, many of which practice routine shooter safety drills, and some of which have experienced threats of gun violence. The play gives insight into the shooter’s frame of mind, grapples with toxic masculinity, peer pressure and bullying.
The play is being presented as part of the College of Humanities and the Arts’ Borderlands series, which explores blurring boundaries, breaking barriers and building bridges. Butler sees theatre as an opportunity to provoke conversation around difficult issues—and in this play’s case, break down the psychology of a largely American phenomenon.
“I see the play as breaking barriers that are placed on our young people attending public and private schools today,” said Butler. “The barrier of safety and security has been blurred. Schools were once a place where we sent our children to learn and grow in a healthy and safe environment. That is no longer the case. There are gun violence drills, not just earthquake drills. We have created borders around and within our schools. Bang Bang You’re Dead is a resource for dealing with a broken world that is violent, unhealthy, unfair and beyond of anyone to fix except today’s generation. We cannot exist and grow in a world that festers fear.”
Between being haunted by ghosts and attending an imaginary trial of his crimes, the protagonist remembers his first time hunting deer. He does not want to kill the animal, and yet is rewarded for ending its life. Throughout the play, his four dead classmates repeat a chilling refrain: “You make your face a mask. / A mask that hides your face. / A face that hides the pain. / A pain that eats your heart. / A heart that nobody knows.”
Butler first produced the play at SJSU in 2013, following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. At the time, he felt America had “reached its height” of school tragedies, though incidents in the years since have proven otherwise. According to data from Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that has documented gun violence at schools since 2013, there have been at least 492 incidents of gunfire on American school grounds over the past six years, resulting in 188 deaths, including 33 suicides and 377 injuries, including six self-harm injuries. Butler’s teenage daughter, who attends high school in San Jose, has been warned of threats of gun violence on campus as recently as October.
“Bang Bang You’re Dead is a sobering show,” Butler said. “It forces students to ask themselves, how would the world be different without you in it? What happens to your potential? I hope this is the last time we produce this show—that we can put this issue to rest—but it probably won’t be. There’s no cure for this phenomenon. That’s why we need to talk about it.”
Bang Bang You’re Dead will be at the Hammer Theatre Center’s Hammer 4 Theatre on December 4, 5, 6 and 7. Reserve tickets.