Fighting gun violence with creativity

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Fed up with the gun violence plaguing the county and country, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman entered into a collaboration with local playwright Syl Jones, and Mixed Blood theater artistic director Jack Reuler to bring an original play into area schools.

The three men kicked off the initial two-week theatrical tour with a news conference at Mixed Blood Theater on Friday, February 28. The play, Stars & Stripes, began its run Monday, March 3 with two shows at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.

“In the early ‘90s, when I was first county attorney, juvenile gun violence was way too high,” Freeman said. “We tried to figure out ways to do something about it. We sponsored a gun turn back program: $50 for your gun, no questions asked. We got 6,200 guns in seven days. The problem was we didn’t have enough dialog about why youth shouldn’t have guns. So, I commissioned a play by Syl Jones and directed by Jack Reuler called Gunplay. It talked in real practical terms why kids shouldn’t be carrying guns. Juvenile gun violence went way down. So, when gun violence started going up again, our management committee and I said, ‘let’s do another play. They said, ‘is Syl still in the business? Yes, he is. Is Jack Reuler in the business? Yes, he is.’ This reaches out to kids with live theater.”

In the play, three teenagers who have been friends since elementary school, find themselves inside a video game called “Stars & Stripes.” The game is a framing device and it is patterned after the “Call to Duty” series. If they win, the prize would be whatever they have dreamed of; however, there can be only one winner. Trying to win, the players must become nastier and more aggressive towards each other and have more of their own personal mistakes revealed. In the end, gunshots ring out and their lives are changed forever.

Although guns are at the center of the play, they are referenced but never seen so as not to glamorize those instruments of death.

“When I was growing up in the 1960s, we considered anyone who brought a gun to a fist fight or who used a weapon to settle and argument to be a coward,” Jones said. “Obviously, we do not live in that kind of world anymore. I wrote Stars & Stripes as a video game for kids that is enacted on stage. It raises the question of who is behind this game, who benefits from it and what the long-term consequences are for the individuals who play it.”

“We use theater as a catalyst to eliminate the social plagues and reduce the isms of our society,” Reuler added. Bullying, parental involvement and other topics are also key elements.

For the play to be successful, it must be discussed with the students in the classroom. About 40 county attorney employees signed up to go into the classroom and lead discussions with the students. These volunteers include victim advocates, attorneys and other staff who attended facilitation training. There is also have a study guide created by juvenile prosecutors, advocates and staff who specialize in diversion programming to help guide the discussions.

Freeman said the money to write, produce and stage the play was provided solely from forfeiture dollars from drug crimes. It’s a nice symmetry, that their ill-gotten gains will now be used to educate young people not to follow down their path of crime and violence.

“What better way to use that money than for educating our kids about gun violence?” Freeman said.