'(Be)longing' Explores Gun Violence, 10 Years After Virginia Tech Shooting
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. On April 16, 2007, a student at Virginia Tech shot 49 people, killing 32 and finally himself. The town is still dealing with the tragedy, so the university's Moss Arts Center commissioned an oratorio to memorialize it. Robbie Harris from member station WVTF has more.
ROBBIE HARRIS, BYLINE: Most everyone remembers where they were when they heard about the shooting. Melissa Ripepi, then a recent Virginia Tech graduate, recalls hearing it.
MELISSA RIPEPI: You heard, like, a pop and, like, a few little pops, which, in my memory - and who knows if it's accurate or not - it just kind of washed over me. But then you hear the (mimicking gunfire) like, I mean, then you really hear it. And it's very unusual, and you realize it's not construction noise.
HARRIS: It was, of course, gunfire. And soon, Blacksburg became the center of that familiar media convergence that arrives unbidden after tragic events.
ANITA PUCKETT: And one of the things that bothered me enormously, as I watched all of this coverage, was how they were making the story.
HARRIS: Anita Puckett is a linguistic anthropologist who teaches at Virginia Tech.
PUCKETT: They were creating the narrative of what had happened. And they were claiming ownership of that narrative by various media broadcasts and on television, on whatever. And I'm going no, it's our misery. It's our narrative. And whose story is it going to be over time?
HARRIS: The town and the school held public events and private dinners at people's homes that continue to this day.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).
HARRIS: Now comes the oratorio, "(Be)longing," aimed at exploring gun violence and how to prevent it.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: When in the history of the world so many children so silent for so long within (unintelligible) (ph).
HARRIS: The music was composed by Byron Au Yong and the lyrics by playwright Aaron Jafferis. The composer came from California and the librettist from Connecticut. And they spent months talking with dozens of people around Blacksburg.
CHARLOTTE BRATHWAITE: You got to count off and remember the group...
HARRIS: Charlotte Brathwaite is directing the work.
BRATHWAITE: It's, like, literally the voices of the community speaking out about the issues that most affect them and the points of view that they feel connected to as well.
UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMER: Where I'm from, a nice boy with a toy gun is more likely to get shot by a white cop than have fun.
HARRIS: Some of those interviewed were cast in the production.
BYRON AU YONG: I think that's what opened up, you know, an idea of breaking the fourth wall.
HARRIS: Composer Byron Au Yong says performers are scattered throughout the hall.
YONG: If you're an audience member that comes, you may be sitting next to someone who all of a sudden starts to sing.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Squeeze the...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) Trigger...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Of my...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) Life...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) But...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Nothing moves...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) No bullets fire. I am overlooked when they look over who to hire. If I act with more authority, will my future...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Stop ignoring...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ...Me? Authority, authority, authority.
HOLLY LESKO: Not everybody could do this.
HARRIS: Holly Lesko is a workforce training specialist in Blacksburg who helps people transition out of prison. She wasn't sure about having yet another group of outsiders telling her story.
LESKO: And the fact that they don't come from this community, I had a lot of trepidation when I first met them about - hmmm (ph), so many people are so fragile around this. And if you come in and mess with them, this will be bad. This won't be good.
HARRIS: But she says, from the very beginning, "(Be)longing's" creators were attuned to people's emotions.
LESKO: Just by watching it, you realize kind of the universalness of those specific moments that, yeah, pain is universal. Loss is universal. And it is kind of through the sharing of that individual and specific that makes space for us to - for other people to know me, to, you know, to then, you know, share their own pain. It's powerful. It changes you.
HARRIS: That's why, says librettist Aaron Jafferis, he and the composer decided a work that features many layers of human voices would be the best way to illustrate "(Be)longing's" theme.
AARON JAFFERIS: Which is young people who decide that they want to silence many voices in order to make their own voice metaphorically large. We recognized that we need to flip that and use this one project as an opportunity to engage and give a platform to multiple voices.
(Rapping) Like a rock but useful, metal, machine. Like a clock but silent, perfect, clean. It's kind of fun to say the way it weighs on my tongue - glock. This gun is called a glock. Trigger...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: Chamber.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: Magazine.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Nine millimeter Glock 19.
HARRIS: Blacksburg will, again, mark the day and mourn the dead in the Virginia Tech shooting. Now, 10 years later, they put this question to the nation - how do we get these shootings to stop?
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).
UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMERS: And how can I and the people in this room get these shootings to stop? I don't know. I'm asking you. A few questions are all I got.
HARRIS: For NPR News, I'm Robbie Harris in Blacksburg, Va.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #5: (Singing) Something bad happens and you replay it...