Unsuspecting Richmonders were shocked when they flipped on “Law & Order” to find a weeknight pot-boiler based on the brutal New Year's Day murders of the Harvey family — just five months after the 2006 crime. Some viewers arched their eyebrows in 2005 when Oliver Stone rolled out “The Great New Wonderful,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Olympia Dukakis, which examined life in New York after 9/11.
Any artistic engagement with a large-scale public tragedy runs the risk of offending an audience that might still be working through grief. So Richmond native Richard Giannotti and Robert Paul Laudenslager, were a little wary last month when they staged a reading of their play, “Dear Blacksburg, I'm Dead,” about the aftermath of the massacre at Virginia Tech April 16, 2007, at the Lyric Theater in Blacksburg, just across town from the scene of the crime.
The reading was a step toward refining the script before an opening planned for New York City this winter. Giannotti entered college at Tech, but transferred to New York University in the fall of 2006 and lives there now. Laudenslager graduated from Tech's Theatre Arts Department in 2008 and wrote the original script for one of his classes. They'd been polishing the script in New York since then, but weren't sure how it would go over back in Blacksburg.
“We were bracing ourselves, but there wasn't any outright push back,” Giannotti says. Had there been any outcry, it wouldn't have been out of step with the message of the play.
“It's not about the tragedy or the event,” says Giannotti, 23, a graduate of Godwin High School. “It's about people dealing with it.”
The story follows three different characters, all Tech students, starting in the midst of the massacre on campus, then trying to figure out how to cope. There's Adam, a frat-boy type supremely impressed with the response team's rifles. In the media crush following the shooting, he makes it his goal to do as many interviews as he can, becoming fixated on finding Katie Couric on campus.
Meanwhile, another student, Robert, whose character draws heavily on Laudenslager's experiences during the shooting, announces his desire to write a comedy about the incident. (Like the real Robert Laudenslager, the character Robert watches from a building across from Norris Hall while the police pull rifles out of the trunks of their cars and set up behind trees. And Laudenslager, like Robert, has a couple of friends who are limited in their movement as a result of being shot.) In the play, another student, Carl, organizes opposition to the play within the play, calling it insensitive and inappropriate.
“The audience can make the mistake and think that [either Carl or Robert is] the protagonist,” Laudenslager says, but as the play unfolds each becomes “obsessed with their own self-image, promoting the play or stopping the play. They become a bit bigger than the community, and a bit bigger than the event.”
As the play continues, Adam conceives of a campus concert to help people heal, an idea that gains momentum but is ultimately overshadowed by the squabbling about the play, transforming the bonehead into an unlikely hero who puts the needs of the community ahead of the impulse to police other people's grieving.
There were no major complaints during a question-and-answer session after the reading, Giannotti says, but “the things that people didn't like were much more specific than I would have imagined.” One of his friends works on the Blacksburg Rescue Squad. In reality, all of the people who made it out of the building alive survived, but in the play someone makes it out only to perish. Giannotti says that stung his friend.
The university declined to sponsor the show, saying that as a policy it does not endorse April 16-driven events. The theater's director told a reporter that if there was community opposition it manifested itself as a “silent boycott.”
If anyone had suggested that dramatizing the events following the massacre was inappropriate, the questions the play raises might constitute its own defense. The conflict in the play comes when the characters find their methods of dealing with the tragedy at odds with one another: But are there a right way and a wrong way to mourn?
The Virginia-New York connection comes at a fraught time between the two states. In April, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid $500,000 for a gun control ad to run in Virginia, aimed at pressuring this state's gubernatorial candidates — Republican Bob McDonnell in particular — to close the gun-show loophole, which allows people can buy guns from private dealers at gun shows without background checks. The spot featured Omar Samaha, whose sister Reema was killed in the Tech massacre. Later that same month, ABC News ran a story following Samaha to a gun show in Richmond. They gave him $5,000 and one hour. He came out with 10 guns.
Giannotti insists that even though he's bringing a story of gun violence in Virginia to New York, he wants to steer clear of the politics. “I'd rather rewrite the script than have it overshadowed by that kind of outside political issue,” he says.
Better to leave those for Oliver Stone. S