The great American (gun) divide

Playwright E.M. Lewis and actor Vin Shambry dart across the shooting range looking for answers to the problem that never ends in "The Gun Show" at CoHo

The lament is one all too many Americans likely can relate to, even if not always in the anguished and urgent way that the playwright E. M. Lewis feels it, and that the actor Vin Shambry delivers it in the latest production at CoHo Theater. The show is always on.

“The movie theater lives in my head and there’s only one show, There’s only ever one show!

That show — brought to you by the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, an enduring frontier ethos, a complex accidental alloy of other historical, cultural, demographic and economic factors, and (maybe) executive producer Wayne LaPierre — is the Gun Show.

Vin Shambry, carrying the debate onstage. Photo: Owen Carey

Vin Shambry, carrying the debate onstage. Photo: Owen Carey

The Gun Show is the title of Lewis’s compact yet high-caliber theatrical, a short one-hour blast of personal recollection, rhetoric and genuinely conflicted questioning about the gun show that plays out in varying versions throughout our society, our political forums and our private lives. Some versions center on practicality, some on recreation, others on fear, danger, mayhem. Some are more personal, for good or ill, than others. All, increasingly, share a broad backdrop of lamentable violence, controversy and division.

As is suggested from the outset here by Kristeen Willis Crosser’s dark, detailed photo projections and the clinking, scraping percussion undergirding Rodolfo Ortega’s sound design, the fabric of American life is threaded through with gunmetal hues.

Lewis may be tired of the show playing incessantly, but she’s not about to pretend that she isn’t part of it, and in some respects quite willingly so. So while Lewis tells us — through Shambry’s voice — that she chose a man to portray her in order to establish some distance from the personal, a fair portion of the words Shambry speaks are Lewis’s own stories about being around guns since she was a young girl, about shooting empty beer cans in the woods on dates with her future husband, about being a young store clerk, unnerved by a gunpoint robbery. In what Shambry and director Shawn Lee make feel like an entirely comfortable, even conventional conceit, Lewis sits in the audience and Shambry at one point shines a light on her, at others plays lines directly to her, sometimes conspiratorially, sometimes confrontationally. Subjectivity may be inescapable, Lewis seems to suggest, but perspectives can be shifted, layered, shared.

Surely the center ring of the Gun Show is the alarming number of homicides, suicides and other violence involving guns, but Lewis argues that our only hope of effectively addressing that is getting control over the ancillary circus of gun rights vs. gun control bickering. She calls for conversation and compromise, not “preaching to the converted.”

As always when I hear that phrase, I was reminded of a speech I saw the playwright Tony Kushner give in the late 1990s. There’s nothing wrong with preaching to the converted, he insisted: “The converted have a lot to think about.”

Lewis gives us a lot to think about, too. She goes light on statistics, favoring juxtapositions of personal experience, such as feeling safe with her Marine-turned-writer husband and his shooting skills or feeling shattered in the aftermath of a robbery. Or arguing that the security needs of rural folk, many miles from police or emergency services, deserve greater respect from city dwellers.

Less helpfully, she references diametrically opposing views about guns from city-slick pacifists or “flag-draped yahoos” and asserts that “the commentary is killing the conversation.” In such moments she’s more polemical than she admits, elevating compromise to such a lofty ideal that she assumes each side is equally reasonable, each argument equally cogent or applicable to the real world. She mentions several times that guns are “fun,” but never hints at what moral logic makes that incidental quality a sufficient defense for a technology created and refined over centuries primarily for lethal purposes against humans. She rightly calls out the hyperbole of those who would advocate confiscating all guns, yet neglects to note that such advocates are pretty much absent from mainstream political, media and interest-group discussions of the matter. She even trots out the old “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” canard, not making a big deal of it, granted, but not subjecting it to any critique either.

If all this weren’t bad enough, she mounts a passionate, if passing, defense of Patrick Swayze!
And yet.

Lewis never comes across as intellectually dishonest, just conflicted. As she points out early on, she’s not an essayist, she’s a playwright. And both a likable and compelling one, at that.
Part of that is the uncluttered grace with which she’s delivered her stories, and the clear spirit of concern at the heart of the work, the yearning for a solution to a problem so present and intractable. So much, too, is the galvanic performance by Shambry. He’s charming, warm, funny, vehement, volcanic, tender, precise … he serves admirably as mouthpiece for the white, middle-aged playwright, allowing us to see her in these stories, yet he doesn’t banish his own presence, that of a leonine young black man, with a different upbringing but a similar care and concern about the issue. (Come to think of it, that casting is one of the more subtle and interesting calls for compromise The Gun Show makes.) It’s a remarkably committed and affecting performance, intense yet with a quality like a set of shifting transparencies, a convincing illusion pulled off even as he explains the trick to you.

“There’s only ever one show.” The starkness of that statement, made near the very beginning of the play, hangs over the ensuing hour, and eventually we learn why, as Lewis’s meditation on the matter takes a deeply, tragically personal turn. A small peculiarity — that what spare statistics on gun violence she cites all our from 2003, even though the play is just two years old — suddenly makes sense.

We come away with a lot more to think about yet even more to feel, to let roll and rattle around in our hearts and guts. Because the subject is so difficult and the artists so honest, the work is appropriately inconclusive.

Except perhaps for this stark assessment:

“Guns don’t equal safety.

“No guns don’t equal safety.

“There is no safety.”

Sadly it may be true that, for now at least, the Gun Show must go on.


The Gun Show continues though October 1 at CoHo Theater, 2257 N.W. Raleigh Street. Ticket and schedule information here.


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