I live and work out of a pleasant, single-story house in the township of Davie, a small suburban enclave in South Florida. It’s a sweet little community. Beautifully maintained lawns. Nice neighbors. Old oak trees lining the streets. People you don’t know say hello to you as they walk their dog past your house. It’s quiet and peaceful and safe. It’s also less than 20 minutes door-to-door from Stoneman Douglas High School, the scene of the Parkland Massacre.
One year ago this month, I was working on minor rewrites for my play After when I got a call from a friend who said, “Turn on the TV.” And so I did. And there it was: The all-too-familiar images of children running out of school, their arms held above their heads. The police cars. The terrified parents. The tears. The horror.
The difference was that this time it was in my own backyard. I knew the school. I knew the street. I knew the families whose children went to the school. I was heartbroken and angry and lost. And yet, my main revelation of that day was simply:
It was only a matter of time.
I wrote After three years before Parkland. Keep in mind, I didn’t write it to make a political statement. While, more times than not, my plays contain socially or politically relevant topics, it isn’t the topic that drives me, but rather the people it affects. In the case of After, I wanted to explore what happens to the parents involved with such an event. What kind of home life sets the stage for such a thing? What is the breaking point? What is it like to lose children under such horrific circumstances? And, perhaps most importantly, what happens after the news crews go home and the world stops caring? How do you live a life after such a nightmare?
In writing the play, I was not surprised to find that none of these questions were easily answered. What did surprise me was that the elements that make up the play — the elements that come together to create the central tragedy — were same elements outside my front door: the sweet little community; the beautifully maintained lawns; the nice neighbors. Benign trappings that mask a world of indifference and quiet ambivalence. In the culture of hate and animosity that this country has cultivated, we’ve numbed ourselves so much to what’s on the news that we can’t see it when it’s happening in our own home.
In some ways, the characters in my play — these parents who raise children who do such terrible things — represent us. All of us. Shaking our heads at the world outside, oblivious to how we ourselves have contributed to the madness. In some ways, the characters of this play are like America itself, trying to present a perfect image to the outside world, desperate to ignore the mess inside.
I wonder what will it take for people to open their eyes and see the consequences of such ignorance. School shootings have become such a regular part of the American vernacular that we’ve become immune to their horror. Texas, California, Ohio, South Florida. Throw a dart at a map of the country and you’re bound to hit a place where it has happened. And each year, the map fills up a little more. We watch the news footage. We listen to the TV talking heads. We hear people send “thoughts and prayers.” And then we forget about it.
Until the next time.
What will it take? And then I remember that day one year ago this month. And maybe that’s the answer: you turn on the TV and there it is. Happening in your own backyard. And you realize…it was only a matter of time.
After, produced by Penguin Rep Theatre and InProximity Theatre Company, runs at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.) through Apr. 14. Joe Brancato is the director; the cast features Denise Cormier, Jolie Curtsinger, Michael Frederic, Mia Matthews and Bill Phillips. For more information and tickets, click here.