As a gun reform advocate and theatre practitioner I was excited to attend a performance of 9mm America, a play running now in New York City that sheds light on America’s gun culture. Written by Girl Be Heard, a group of young women between the ages of 14-23, the play is unique in its perspective. Many of the girls in the cast come from neighborhoods where gun violence is prevalent and some of them are survivors of gun violence, having lost family members to gunfire. It is clear that their experience with tragedy has empowered them with a sense of responsibility to change something wrong with this country. And what is wrong, they tell us, is that “Gun violence is an addiction and America, you’re an addict…”
The actors take us through the violent history of guns in America from the genocide of Native Americans, through slavery and the civil war, to the sensationalism of guns through our media coverage – a destructive influence that has led to a growing sense of paranoia and the belief that a gun is needed to keep us safe from “all those other people who don’t look like me.” It is this paranoia and fear of “other” that perpetuates the vicious cycle of violence in the neighborhoods these young women call home. In their view, police assume every person of color they see is up to no good, and those same people of color assume the protection of the law does not apply to them. Having worked in prison, I’ve seen the consequences of this unfortunate dynamic. Young black and Hispanic men have taken the law into their own hands and ended up in jail, all because they didn’t feel there was anyone else who would help them.
Also discussed in the play is the way in which the design of our economic and educational systems seems to keep minorities from succeeding. Poverty and lack of proper education have led desperate men and women to turn to other means of survival like drug dealing, theft, and other types of crime – in most instances using a gun for power and protection. Add teen pregnancy to the mix and the cycle just repeats itself over and over again, each new generation learning at a very young age the same lessons of mistrust and survival by the gun. “Cause they can’t seem to find a place they think we belong,” the girls tell us. “So they got us set up in hardship in ghettos to do wrong. Enrage us. Teach us nothing. Then encage us.”
“When will it stop?” the girls ask and I found myself drowning in this question. When our obsession with guns runs so deep and is based on centuries of firmly rooted racism, fear and greed how can we overcome it? Is there hope for us? It occurred to me during the talkback after the performance that perhaps these young women – and others like them – ARE our hope. When others around them are falling prey to the life described above, these girls are refusing to become statistics. They are not joining gangs or getting pregnant, but are finishing school and going to college. And now they are using their experiences to educate others about this issue that is so close to them. They have plans to take the play into schools and to tour the country in order to share their message with as many people as possible. The philosophy of Girl be Heard asserts, “If a girl can change her own life, she can change the lives of girls everywhere.” It is my belief that these women and this play they have so courageously written can potentially change the lives not only of girls, but of people everywhere. “This is a call to action to stop gun violence” they tell us at the play’s conclusion. “Stand up with us now and help us fight for this cause.” I, for one, intend to stand with them.
Dawn Slegona McDonald is a teaching artist and mom based in Brooklyn, NY. She is an active member of the NY/Greater NYC chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Visit momsdemandaction.org for more details.
99mm America is playing now as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. Robert Moss Theatre, 440 Lafayette St, New York, NY
Friday June 7th at 4:30pm
Sunday June 9th at 5:00pm
Wednesday June 19th at 8:00pm
Tickets are $18. Purchase at PlanetConnections.org or call (866) 811-4111. To learn more about Girl Be Heard visit girlbeheard.org