‘The Gun Show’ triggers a conversation of gun violence in America

Upon entering the theatre for “The Gun Show” in Portland, Oregon, you will find the following things on stage: a table, a box, a binder, a light. The only sound is the repeating clank of metal.

The stark stage is an echo of the grim realities America faces when it comes to gun violence. There are more mass shootings in the U.S. than any other country in the world, with the three deadliest occurring in the past 10 years. Women are eleven times more likely to be murdered by a gun in the U.S. than women in other high-income countries. Most shockingly, and most under the radar, is the fact that gun suicide accounts for nearly two thirds of firearms deaths. The statistics go on.

But playwright E.M. Lewis’s “The Gun Show” is not all despairing, nor does take a hard stance. It leans neither right or left, contradicting and complicating itself at every turn. And, it’s refreshing.

It acknowledges the “gun-toting, Palin-voting, red-white-and booyah conservative, card-carrying NRA members” and “granola-eating, Whole Foods shopping, Rachel Maddow-listening liberal pinko hippies” in the same sentence without judgment. Most importantly, it begs the question: What about the people in the middle?

“We want to be safe. That’s what we have in common,” actor Vin Shambry, who plays the one-man role of Lewis, tells the audience.

Directed by Shawn Lee, “The Gun Show’s” approach is innovative in that Lewis, a white woman who grew up in rural Oregon, sits in the audience the entire time while Shambry, an African-American male from inner city Portland, steps into her skin and recounts a series of five true stories from her life.

The masculine and feminine coexist, while identity is subverted, toyed with, and questioned. Even though the show follows Lewis’ narrative, as we watch Shambry talk about situations like encountering hostile cops in Penn Station, for example, the story begins to takes on an additional layer of meaning.

I went to “The Gun Show” because I think about guns a lot. It’s impossible for me not to these days when I all need to do is click on a YouTube video and see Tulsa police shooting Terrence Crutcher, an unarmed black man. Or log into Netflix and watch a T.V. show where narcos in Colombia pull out their pistols just about every episode. Or, observe my daughter at the arcade shooting aliens with a plastic gun.

I’m admittedly a gun virgin. Despite having cops in my family, I’ve never seen or actually touched one in real life. When I sit down in the audience for “The Gun Show,” I know exactly where I stand on this issue: unapologetically liberal with leftist views on gun control. I tell myself, however, to keep an open mind, although I know it will be hard.

Through a conversational format, “The Gun Show” gives an intimate window into Lewis’ intensely personal experiences as a woman from a farming community in Oregon, or “Ory-gun” as those outside Portland have renamed it. A countryside, we learn, where a police station is likely up to 50 miles away from home and can take up to an hour for a cop to show up, and where a handgun is a type of present a man gives his woman as a sign of affection. A countryside, I admit, I have rarely visited and hardly have reason to think about.

“Cities don’t get to own the American story,” the audience is told.

Here in this theatre in Portland, the oft ignored rural perspective about guns is given space without lapsing into a screaming match.  In the first two stories, I begin to see how guns are as common as “having a toaster or bicycle.” In the context of rural Oregon, I understand their normalcy — a point of view I’d never considered having grown up in suburban New York.

Lewis learns to shoot a gun from her loving boyfriend (later husband) one day while they’re picnicking besides a pond. He lets her into his masculine world. He makes her feel safe. It’s a sweet tale of falling in love, only with guns instead of roses at its center.

But the stories take a turn. In the third story, Lewis is held up by gunpoint at a bookstore where she works. In the fourth, she encounters an aggressive cop. The fifth is the most difficult, a story Lewis held onto for 13 years before “The Gun Show” debuted in Chicago in 2014. It is a harrowing tale about her husband’s death by gun suicide, one that is reflected upon with sadness and regret.

“I don’t want to take everyone’s guns away. I wished I had manned up and taken his gun away.”

Throughout, moments of levity provide another way to access the emotionally and politically fraught material. At one point, Shambry breaks out into a “Dirty Dancing” era Patrick Swayze impersonation and everyone sings along to “I’ve Had the Time of My Life.” It is in those moments where our common humanity is apparent, where coming to some sense of a shared understanding seems possible.

At the end, as we’re exiting, Shambry hands the audience typed pages of “The Gun Show” script he’s been taking out of the box as he told each story. The box is then tossed, stepped on, and destroyed. The metaphor is clear: the boxes we keep ourselves in need to be broken down or else progress won’t be made. We’re not going to get anywhere as a country if we don’t start listening to each other.

To begin this conversation, the audience afterwards is given the opportunity to tell their own gun stories with the help of a moderator. We are overwhelming liberal-leaning, as expected in Portland, but there are a few perspectives from the middle that give us pause. Quite a few people talk about family members committing suicide, and a former cop talks about the stats on how little they actually use their guns.

Additionally, a special guest from the public health sector hashes out the facts on suicide and guns, with one point I’m surprised to learn: Of those who attempt suicide and survive, 90% never attempt it again. Having a gun in the house, however, greatly increases the risk of being successful.

“The Gun Show” sticks with me long after I leave the theatre. A few weeks later, when I am on a plane, my seatmate is an older man wearing flannel and a hunting hat. He asks me where I got my earplugs because he needs a good pair when he goes to the shooting range. My first reaction is to give him a short answer and quickly turn away.

Then I remember Lewis’ story.  For a moment, my judgment is suspended. We talk as two human beings who just want to safely get where we’re going, and he kindly grabs my luggage for me when we land. I still have work to do in terms of broadening my understanding, but “The Gun Show” has given me a good start.

The Gun Show will be premiering in Washington, D.C. next summer.

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