Tragic, beautiful, and true

Tragic, beautiful, and true

By Steven Boyd Saum

Photographs by Charles Barry
With a performance epic but simple, remembering the Virginia Tech shootings by honoring the lives well-lived—and not just their loss.

April 16 marked fifth the anniversary of a deadly act of gun violence—an event that continues to resonate at college campuses across the United States: the killing of 32 students and faculty by shooter Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. But this year at Santa Clara, on a quiet, cool morning, it was the lives well-lived by the women and men at Virginia Tech that members of the SCU community gathered to honor.

Seventy-six Santa Clara students, faculty, alumni, and staff came together in the Ignatian Gardens to perform What a Stranger May Know, a simple but epic play written to commemorate those lives. But the term play doesn’t capture what the experience is; it's more a communal act of bearing witness, rendering 32 individual lives in 32 monologues each—nearly 1,000 stories in all—offering not just communal grieving but a coming to terms with life at its most fundamental and beautiful.

Kristen Kusanovich addresses the audience. Photo by Charles Barry

Playwright Eric Enh is the author. At Santa Clara the work was staged by Kristin Kusanovich and Michael Zampelli, S.J., both of the SCU Department of Theatre and Dance. Kusanovich is also co-director of the Justice in the Arts Initiative, which was created to foster “a culture in which the arts and social justice become an integral, vital dimension of campus life.” JAI had previously brought Enh to campus, and as he was writing What a Stranger May Know, he reached out to Kusanovich and Zampelli about the possibility of performing the play on the Mission Campus.
 

To bear witness—and to imagine what may be

One of the refrains heard in the wake of the tragedy like that at Virginia Tech is never again. But the fact is that, on the very day that Santa Clara—and, at two dozen other campuses across the country—people gathered to bear witness to the lives taken at Virginia Tech in 2007, in Oslo, Norway, the trial of another alleged mass killer was beginning. And two weeks before, a gunman shot seven people at Oikos University in Oakland. So the still, calm morning of bearing witness took on a further resonance.

Those of us who were part of the experience of What a Stranger May Know gathered on the edge of the lawn just before 7:30 in the morning. A procession of actors led into the gardens, and each actor took up his or her station and began a series of stories for the next 90 minutes. Each of the plays was performed simultaneously.

All of us were those there to see and hear, witness and learn. And be moved. Who were we?

    

We were actors who summoned the honest details of lives—through monologues about academics and sports, conferences and dreams, hopes and fears, hellos shouted across the quad to a passing friend.

We were witnesses—those who were assigned that role, as part of the performance, because the words spoken are meant to be heard.

We were a group of performers who played the role of students sitting at a table to the side, trying to study.

We were musicians playing songs somber and joyful.

And we were the audience, moving about from place to place, becoming a part of one performance and then another and another—and coming back together at the end, because we are relational beings.

    

Ehn says he endeavoured “to provide a community with imaginative access to mourning.” The simultaneous readings, he explained, were meant to be reflective, not informational. Rather than impersonations, the texts present “people thinking in time … a memorial action.”

As always, the question then becomes: What do you do with this experience you have had, this knowledge you’ve gained, this life you have to live?

Read more about What a Stranger May Know and the Justice in the Arts Initiative.

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