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How does forgiveness emerge in the aftermath of gun violence? Can it? Will it? What do we do as we wait to find out?
For months now, Houses on the Moon, a socially-focused, community-committed theatre company, has been asking those very questions. They began with a series of workshops, inviting people who have been affected by gun violence to tell their stories. The raw material of those conversations was then shaped into The Assignment, a fictional play that is deeply rooted in what the community had to say. Next spring, both the play and some of the original workshop material will be presented Off Broadway in a repertory called Gun Country. The rest of the city will then be invited to join this company's process, engaging with the harshness and hope that resound long after shots are fired.
But The Assignment, which is written by Camilo Almonacid, stands as a work of art, not a stern lecture on current events. After attending a workshop presentation earlier this summer, I became convinced that Houses on the Moon is entering a new phase in its artistic life, and even though the new play won't premiere for months, we can think about the methods that are bringing it to life. The company's commitment to listening – and giving people a place to be heard – provide us a model for discussing play development and community building and the world they live in.
Simplest matters first: The Assignment looks at the effect of gun violence on two characters. Julian, a man in his 30s, is on parole after committing a gun crime as a teenager, and Helen, his community college teacher, is mourning her teenaged son, who was killed in a shooting some years before.
Beyond that plot summary, things get complicated. Since the script emerged from a real-life community workshop, tidy conclusions aren't possible (or preferable). "It was always the intention that a play would organically emerge, and it did, from the relationship of two members in the group," said Houses on the Moon Board member Jane Dubin, speaking during a post-reading panel. "The play began by trying to understand the perspectives from different sides of a gun."
To that end, Helen asks, "How am I a mother one day, and then the next day I am not? How does he come out of me, living, breathing, and then how is he gone?" Her grief and anger collide with Julian's tales of abuse and youthful stupidity. We watch these characters, wounded by circumstance and environment, try to create a safe space together.
This resonates deeply with the mission of the 15-year-old company, which strives to affect both the people in the audience and the people whose stories are being told. "We dispel ignorance and isolation through the theatrical amplification of unheard voices," says co-founder and co-artistic director Jeffrey Solomon. "You're presenting a story of 'the other' to a group that may know very little about this human story. And someone whose story is never told suddenly sees her story on the stage. That's very empowering."
Those traits are present in the company's very first show, 2001's Building Houses on the Moon>. Working as teaching artists in New York City public schools, Solomon and co-founder Emily Weiner were unsettled by the homophobia they observed among their students. They decided to address the problem by creating a play out of verbatim internet posts and interviews with queer young people. A gay teen in Connecticut provided both the title for this inaugural work and the company name. "I've never had an adult gay role model," the student told Solomon. "How can I know what my future will be like? It's like trying to imagine your life on the moon. How would I know what my life would be like on the moon?"
Soon, the troupe was tackling the aftermath of 9/11 (Finding the Words), the struggles of undocumented young people (De Novo), and the story of a trans woman from Guyana seeking asylum in the United States (Tara's Crossing). Thanks to constant touring, the stories of these resilient survivors have been seen by audiences nationwide, with stops everywhere from high schools and law schools to established regional theatres.
Next spring, The Assignment will expand that conversation yet again, when the play will alternate with an evening of the real-life stories that inspired it. In the tradition of Anna Deavere Smith, whose theatre is inspired by research on social issues, Houses on the Moon moves the art form forward. They create art and community out of real text, real people, and real social need.
Follow Martha Wade Steketee at @msteketee. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photo: A panel discussion following the workshop production of The Assignment. Photo provided by the author.