I was a freshman in high school when two heavily armed Columbine High School students entered their Littleton, Colorado, school and began shooting at their classmates. That was the first and last mass school shooting that happened during my high school career. How different things are today, as the Philadelphia Young Playwrights premiere of Candles reminds us.
What we didn’t know
During my own high-school days, the Columbine shooting was seen as a fluke, not the start of a trend, so the specter of being massacred in the biology lab didn’t loom particularly large over me and my fellow 2002 graduates. Still, my senior year, our school hosted the local police department for a crisis drill, one of the first in the country and certainly the first in my hometown. As a theater and journalism student, I had behind-the-scenes access to the events of the day. The mood was light, with the understanding that this was really prep for a worst-case scenario, not a very likely possibility.
Fast forward 18 years since my high-school graduation, and there have been at least ten other mass school shootings (defined by the FBI as shootings that kill four or more people, not including the suspect) and upwards of 150 other mass shootings—among what are surely some of America’s most frustrating and shameful lists. Unlike my classmates and me, today’s teenagers live with a steady drumbeat of anxiety. Crisis drills are a regular occurrence, and the new normal includes extensive security checks and armed guards.
A product of its time
Written by high-school sophomore Angelina DeMonte, the Philadelphia Young Playwrights world premiere production of Candles is very much a product of its time. At a post-show talkback last week, DeMonte noted that her play, which is about a fictional school shooting in suburban Philadelphia, is informed by the fear that she and her classmates share: that today will be the last day they leave home to head to school. Although the Philadelphia area has not experienced firsthand the trauma and heartbreak of a mass school shooting, DeMonte chose to set Candles locally because to her, the question is not whether it will happen here, but when.
Alternatingly heartbreaking and soul-soothing, Candles tells the story of four friends whose lives are forever changed after a gunman—one of their classmates—attacks the school, killing several students.
A talented young cast
Set in a single classroom, Candles moves backward and forward in time, grounding us in the friendships of the four protagonists—Rose (Danielle Coates), Amara (Ang Bey), Jace (Tyler S. Elliott), and Augustus (Yannick Haynes). The opening moments of the play are delightful, depicting the silly drama of the day-to-day and the deep bond between the characters, with each other and with their newspaper adviser, Mr. Weatherbee (Owen Corey).
All of the actors put in strong performances, but Bey is the strongest, their soulful eyes and magnetic voice making it clear why director Bi Jean Ngo would have wanted such a performer in so central a role. But just as Bey is able to break your heart with a single glance, the rest of the cast shows the hard work of mending after a tragedy. The students grapple with grief, PTSD, and finding a new normal, taking comfort in each other and even finding therapeutic moments of comedy in the face of tragedy.
Writing the truth
Every moment between the teens feels authentic, thanks to Ngo’s direction and DeMonte’s script, which is both surprisingly mature for a writer of her age and also beautifully innocent in the most hopeful of ways. It perhaps falters in a subplot involving a gotcha journalist named Alex Blaire (Corey again) at a clickbait-powered conservative website. Such outlets and people certainly exist in real life, and always manage to crawl out of the woodwork around these tragedies. But creating an additional layer of conflict between Blaire and the students, rather than a more streamlined focus on the simpler fact that the media won’t leave these kids alone, removes us from the heart of the play. I would have preferred Corey to be able to focus his talent more on his teacher role, grappling with what happened in his school and the need to support his students, and less on the predatory Blaire.
But if this is my strongest criticism of Candles, then that’s evidence of the strength of the work. DeMonte is a talented writer and, backed by a strong cast and supportive director, her play stands up admirably to works by playwrights more than twice her age. The zeitgeist she captures might be a scary one, but she writes the truth. I hope we listen.
What, When, Where
Candles. By Angelina DeMonte. Through January 25, 2020, at the Arden Theater’s Hamilton Family Arts Center, 62 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia. (215) 665-9226 or phillyyoungplaywrights.org.
The Hamilton Family Arts Center is an ADA-compliant venue.