American high school students, who were born after the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, are grimly accustomed to shooting drills and regular, if not daily, reports of gun violence on the news.

It was the 2018 school shooting at Parkland, Fla., that helped catalyze Enough! Plays to End Gun Violence. The yearly contest encourages young people to write plays addressing how ongoing shootings affect American lives. But founder Michael Cotey spent most of his professional life as a theater geek, not an activist.

"We're kind of always in a state of being bruised and battered," he told NPR during a run-through at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. "Sandy Hook happened. I'm in rehearsal for a play. The Las Vegas shooting happened. I'm in rehearsal for a play. Parkland happened. I'm in rehearsal for a play. And the same thing happened each time. All of us got really upset and incensed about it. Then we went on to making plays and making theater and going about our normal life."

While not personally touched by gun violence, Cotey found himself wondering, "What could we do? Like, what could theater do that we haven't done already? What play is out there that we could rally around?"

Then a Chicago-based actor and director in his early 30s, Cotey had worked on The Laramie Project, a much-performed, dramatic reflection about the murder of Matthew Shepard. It was staged simultaneously in theaters around the world in 2009. Cotey decided to enlist theaters and gun violence prevention groups in something similar, involving a high school playwrighting contest. Six winners would be staged on the same day in theaters across the country. Each short play, only 10 minutes long, would center on the effects of gun violence rather than the act of it. No scenes of shooting could be included.

"So the young people get selected, they get a stipend, they get produced, they get published, they get their plays workshopped, they get tons of feedback," Cotey explains. "Every writer in the program who submits a play gets feedback from at least three readers. And if you go through the process of getting to the point where you're a finalist, you get feedback from up to six readers, plus the selection committee."

The selection committee include leading playwrights such as David Henry Hwang, Tarell Alvin McCraney and Lauren Gunderson.

One of this year's winning playwrights, Niarra C. Bell, now studies acting in college. Her play, The Smiles Behind, is about a young girl confronting a police officer on the verge of shooting her teenage brother. Bell was inspired in part by violence committed against young Black men, including the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. "When tragic situations happen between African Americans and the police, we're quick to villainize police officers," Bell says. "So I really wanted to write a play not only from the perspective of an African American, but also someone who respects our police force."

Other winning plays this year include a biting satire about the absurd failure of a "school kindness week" to prevent gun violence; another takes place behind the scenes of a 911 call center. The readings were staged in community centers, community theaters, schools and at not-for-profits.

"They're getting local people to come," Cotey says. "Maybe the mayor or a state senator [will] see these plays, respond to them, be a part of a conversation, and also get greater insight into what young people are thinking about."

This year's readings took place on Nov. 6.

For the past several years in South Bend, Ind., the Enough! plays have been staged at the South Bend Civic Theatre in conjunction with a group called Connect 2 Be The Change, founded by mothers who had lost kids to gun violence.

"One mom had lost two kids to gun violence," Cotey says. The organization now works to reduce gun violence by training young people to be "change agents." Now, some of those young people also perform as part of the staged readings.

When the Mayor of South Bend attended one year, the young actors were able to address him directly, Cotey says, as in, "Hey Mr. Mayor, you're not really doing as much as you should be doing."

The activist moms in Connect 2 Be The Change had not been theater people. But after the first reading, that changed. "One of them now works on the staff at South Bend Civic Theatre," Cotey says. "The second year, she's directing the plays with survivors in the community who she has cast because they align with the stories. Now this year, there's a march. They've got all these other partner organizations. They're working with the schools. It's become an important event for their community, and it's been a way that they can process and heal on this issue."

He pauses, fighting tears. "And when I made that one pager just out of frustration and hope that people would do this project, I had no idea that people would use it in that way."

Enough! still does not pay the bills for Michael Cotey. But his ambitions are growing. He would like to see the plays staged in every U.S. state, and at the White House, in front of the president.

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ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Over the weekend, 22 people were injured in mass shootings across the United States. There have been more mass shootings than days so far this year. A new project called Enough! encourages high school students to write plays about gun violence. It's a competition. And as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the six winning plays were recently produced at dozens of theaters around the country.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: A cop is chasing a kid - a young, Black teenager - down a deserted street.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As teenager, shouting) I didn't do it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As cop, shouting) Get your hands where I can see them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As teenager, shouting) It wasn't me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As cop, shouting) Stop what you're doing. Hands up.

ULABY: This is a play, a rehearsal at one of the top professional theaters in Washington, D.C., 1 of nearly 60 in the U.S. simultaneously staging the winning plays. This one has a twist. When the cop says freeze, both characters suddenly find themselves unable to move. Enter a little girl. It becomes clear she has somehow frozen them in place.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As cop) Where's my gun?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As girl) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As cop) Kid, that is a dangerous weapon. You need to give it to me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As girl) I don't have it. I'm not allowed to touch things like that. And you can't have a gun either. We're playing freeze tag.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As cop) Well, how do we stop playing freeze tag?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As girl) Well...

ULABY: The young playwright, Niarra Bell, was inspired in part by Trayvon Martin's murder.

NIARRA BELL: I have a younger brother who is 15 years old. You know, sometimes I just go out and I just, like, God, just watch over my brother.

MIKE COTEY: There is a lot of anger in these plays towards us adults letting it go on for so long.

ULABY: Mike Cotey created this playwriting contest after the Parkland school shootings five years ago. He was working in Chicago as a director and just thought, what play can speak to this violence? Then he realized it had not been written yet. So he wrote a one-pager describing the project and sent it to everyone he knew. Three years later, the annual contest now gets hundreds of submissions. The plays are only 10 minutes long. They cannot show gun violence on stage.

COTEY: Plays about gun violence are about people. It's not about necessarily the moment of violence.

ULABY: One play this year is set in a 911 call center. Another is a biting satire. School administrators try to prevent gun violence by promoting what they call School Kindness Week. But then there's a school shooting.

COTEY: And now these principal and vice principal and this teacher, they're going to do School Kindness Month because week wasn't going to do the trick. And also, they're in their Kevlar vests and holding heavy artillery.

ULABY: Cotey says some of the people now deeply involved with Enough! were not theater people to begin with. They were activists who had lost children to guns. Working on these plays in their hometowns has opened new conversations.

COTEY: And it's been a way that they can process and heal - and heal on this issue. And when I made that one-pager, just out of frustration and hope that people would do this project, I had no idea that people would use it in that way - like, no idea.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As cop) I'm in pursuit of an African American male.

ULABY: Back at the theater in Washington, D.C., the actors run through a scene with their director, who works professionally with young performers.

MAURICIO PITA: How did that feel? How did that read-through feel?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: I actually felt scared.

ULABY: The director, whose name is Mauricio Pita, then turns to the little girl whose character can freeze people. It turns out the cop was chasing her brother.

PITA: You know when you're upset? Yes. And you know when something is so intense and then you're holding it in, and then you're holding it in, and then you explode? This is the moment where you're telling exactly what you want. Guess who has the power here?


PITA: That's right.

ULABY: Putting young people in touch with their power, that's Act 1. Act 2 belongs to them.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


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