Philly Playwright Gets Death Threats Over Play About Mass Shootings, Gun Control
Summer is the quietest time of year for most theater companies in Philadelphia, which tend to close out their seasons by May or June at the latest. But here it is July, and New City Stage Company finds itself in the middle of a torrent of controversy, most of which is being generated some 3,000 miles away.
The decade-old group recently debuted Roseburg, a new play by company founder and Rittenhouse Square resident Ginger Dayle. Roseburg unabashedly promotes gun control by recounting two events that happened in Roseburg, Oregon, a rural town of about 22,000 people.
First, there’s Robert F. Kennedy’s gun control speech that he gave in Roseburg in 1968 when he was a presidential candidate. Kennedy’s impassioned speech came two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“A person who is insane, a man with a long criminal record of killing a dozen people, can go in and buy a rifle,” Kennedy said on the steps of the Douglas County Courthouse. Less than two weeks later, Kennedy’s own life was taken by a gunman.
But the section of Dayle’s play that has sparked outrage among many residents of Roseburg is her inclusion of the 2015 Umpqua Community College shooting in which 26-year-old student Christopher Harper-Mercer killed a professor and eight students before shooting himself in the head. Dayle examines the events of that day, delves into the mind of the shooter and his mother, and includes an interview that one survivor gave to the press. Victims’ names are used.
The play hasn’t generated all that much publicity in Philadelphia since it opened on July 7th at the Adrienne Theater, but the folks in Roseburg sure have taken notice.
“Residents Boo ‘Roseburg’ Play About UCC Shooting” and “‘Roseburg’ the Play Drawing More Jeers than Cheers in Oregon” are among the stories being run by Roseburg newspapers and television stations this week.
One Roseburg resident started a Change.org petition to ban and boycott the play.
“… [T]hat you are trying to turn it into something to do with gun control is seriously ridiculous,” writes Roseburg’s Setiva Gardner in the petition, which has garnered more than 2,000 signatures. “The play is literally ripping open a sore wound. She doesn’t understand the pain she is causing by making a play about OUR TOWN … our family’s and our community’s pain.”
One woman who signed the petition is Anastasia Boylan, who was shot that day.
“We have gotten so much hate mail and even death threats since the shooting,” wrote Boylan, 18, in her response to the petition. “We have been called crisis actors to enforce gun control. Now there is going to be a play about what happened to us to enforce more gun control. … This lady is ignorant.”
Dayle says she’s received numerous death threats of her own and messages threatening to burn the theater down, and she temporarily made her Facebook page private once she realized that opponents were lifting her Facebook photos and using them to mock or threaten her. Dayle’s home address was published.
But in an interview on Wednesday with Philadelphia magazine, Dayle shrugged off the concerns over Roseburg, saying that her work constitutes free speech and that her lawyer cleared the use of the victims’ names and the interview that one gave.
“None of these people have even seen the play,” Dayle told us. “And yet they’re saying things like, ‘I hope you get AIDS and die’ and ‘I hope you’re Bill Cosby’s next victim.’ People think that it’s exploitative that I’m using the shooting and the victims to make money. They think we’re making so much money. I guess they don’t have non-profits out in Oregon.”
Dayle says that the controversy has led to some much-needed publicity for Roseburg and that she’s been contacted by theater companies all over the country that are interested in the production. She expects to bring Roseburg to the Capital Fringe in Washington, D.C. next year.
One person who probably won’t be in attendance is former Army infantryman Chris Mintz, who was at the college when gunfire erupted. Mintz was shot several times when he confronted the gunman and is considered a hero by many Roseburg residents. Dayle uses Mintz’s story and name as well as the name of the gunman, which some critics say should not be repeated.
“It is pretty tasteless and insensitive,” Mintz told us. “None of us … gave permission to use our names or likeness or whatever you want to call it. I believe if she’s going to make a play about us and use our names, she could at least ask us first. But it’s America, and she has the right to do what she pleases.”
And it sounds like she will.
“These people are trying to censor me,” says Dayle. “But in doing so, they are keeping the conversation going, which is a good thing.”
Once the play closes at the Adrienne Theater on July 31st, Dayle says she’s definitely going to make some changes and rework some sections, but she has no intention of taking the Roseburg shooting or any victim names out of it.
And it turns out that she’s already had to make some alterations to the script.
“I list a bunch of recent shootings in the play,” says Dayle. “And I had to keep changing it. First Orlando, then Dallas, and now Baton Rouge. I feel like everybody is going to need a gun to survive in the United States.”
Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.