The cast of ‘Americana: A Murder Ballad’ stand on stage at Smothers Theatre on April 3. The play opened as the cast walked on stage holding candles and singing a ballad. Photos by Lucian Himes
Content Warning: This coverage story includes the topic of gun violence.
“I should be writing my college essay, not my will.”
These are the words on one of many banners that hung above the Smothers’ stage during “Americana: A Murder Ballad” — a play about the effects and nuance of gun violence in American schools.
First debuting at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland in summer 2022, the Pepperdine Theatre Department brought “Americana: A Murder Ballad” to the Smothers’ stage April 5 for its U.S. premiere.
With the audience sitting on the stage, the characters put on an immersive, emotional and thought-provoking performance.
Background of the Play
Alumna Haley Powell (‘22) served as the choreographer of the production and senior Cole Wagner was the assistant director.
The play is an original piece written for the University’s Theatre program, according to the play’s program. The show was originally set to debut at the University in spring 2020 but was postponed due to COVID-19.
Senior Penny Devlin, who played Number 3/Frankie, said she was honored to be part of an original show.
“It’s something I never thought I would get in a college career,” Devlin said. “So to be able to do that at my age is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
As the lights dimmed, the Writer — played by junior Jackson Murrieta — walked on stage and performed a monologue to set the scene of the play.
The monologue is followed by the rest of the cast coming onto the stage to perform a murder ballad — a ballad with lyrics describing the event of a murder.
Each character, Number 1 to Number 11, breaks out into a ballad detailing the events that lead them to become a school shooter.
From the high school jock to the quiet girl, every character has traits that conform or defy the stereotypical profile of a school shooter. As each character goes through their own storyline, the audience sees how anyone has the potential to become a school shooter as well as a victim of gun violence in modern American society.
Upbeat melodies and cheery facial expressions slowly turned into somber tunes and fearful looks as the characters’ nightmare of a school shooting continued.
“The music falls apart as the story unravels,” said Wesley Ruby, music director and alumnus (‘22), in the audience talk-back.
The characters are referred to as both a name and a number; the name is given when they take on the role as a school shooter while the number signifies their identity as a victim. The numbers symbolize the ever-increasing number of victims of gun violence in American schools. Three of the characters are referred to as “Unknown Number” to demonstrate the seemingly never-ending cycle of gun violence and its stream of victims.
“It seems that we will try anything and everything to keep our children safe from a school shooter, except strengthen common sense gun laws,” Thomas-Grant wrote in the program.
The Audience Talk-Back
At the end of the play, the cast and crew held an audience talk-back to allow space for conversation and reflection on the issue of gun violence in America.
With the debut performance being in Edinburgh, Scotland, an audience member asked the cast and crew about the differences of the audiences’ reactions in Edinburgh and in the United States.
“They [audience in Scotland] think it’s a fairytale,” Powell said in the audience talk-back.
The reality of gun violence in Scotland does not compare to that of the United States. The last school shooting in Scotland took place on March 13, 1996 in Dunblane, according to The New York Times. The last school shooting in the United States took place on March 27 at The Covenant School in Nashville, according to The New York Times. Since 1999, there has been 377 school shootings in the United States, according to The Washington Post.
Included in the program is a list of all the schools affected by gun violence since the preparation for the spring 2023 production of the show. Before the start of each show, the cast and crew stand in a circle and say the names of The Covenant School shooting victims, said junior Kayla Bryant — who played Number 1/Pearl — in the audience talk-back.
Senior Haily Watson said she was a student at Pepperdine when the Borderline shooting happened, and she was a friend of Alaina Housley — who was a Pepperdine student and one of the 12 victims in the Borderline shooting.
Watson spoke about her experience during the audience talk-back and the audience passed around a box of tissues. Watson said she knew Housley; they were both in choir together.
Watson said this was a necessary story to be told and commended the cast and crew for their vulnerability in telling it.
“This story is censored a lot. It’s taboo,” Watson said. “It’s something that a lot of people argue about, fight about. It was just seen as black and white. You can’t ignore it, you can’t fight it. It’s there in your face, and you have to decide what you’re gonna do with that.”
The audience, cast and crew said they hope this play inspires more conversations surrounding the issue of gun violence in the United States.
“[I hope the audience can learn] how we can better prepare ourselves and how we can educate ourselves and each other, and how we can protect each other,” Devlin said. “I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Follow the Graphic on Twitter: @PeppGraphic
Contact Tanya Yarian via Twitter: @tanya_yarian or by email at email@example.com
Contact Yamillah Hurtado by email: firstname.lastname@example.org