Academic conferences are generally staid affairs and yet the 4th International Conference on the Restructuring of the Global Economy, University of Cambridge (23rd - 24th June 2014) managed to provide a conference first for its delegates in the form of play. Viewing a thought provoking and often poignant play about guns and gun crime in Modern America certainly generated plenty of intense discussion. The audience of leading academics, policy makers and business figures from 31 countries all acknowledged the value of fresh perspectives and new thinking. The play’s subject is, of course, familiar territory that periodically exercises US politicians and the media in the wake of yet another shooting, but as is the nature of these things soon fades from our consciousness as our attention is grabbed by seemingly more weighty topics such as the antics of Justin Bieber or the Kardashians.
The AK47 Chronicles by Frank Vandall, takes us into the lives of individuals in some way affected by the issue of guns and gun ownership. Vandall, who happens to be a Professor of Law at the Emory University School of Law, Atlanta, Georgia describes The AK47 Chronicles in the prelude to his play as; “a policy dialogue in the form of a play”. From the outset he firmly nails his colors to the mast when he refers to the way in which since the mid-nineteenth century US arms manufacturers have deliberately exaggerated the threats to ordinary American citizens in order to boost sales. The Prelude ends by stating; “...the American public should not have to bear the cost of the unregulated marketing of guns.” Maybe in the light of what follows, The Cost Chronicles might have been a more subtle and appropriate title for this work, for fundamentally it is indeed an exploration of the price paid for decisions made or not made, let alone the cost for certain individuals and for society in general.
The play is made up of a dozen scenes that are episodic in nature that takes the audience on a salutary journey from the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln through to the Obama era. Rather than merely focusing on narrative it endeavors to provide a degree of context, as well explore the lead up and impact of both deliberate and random acts of gun violence. For added dramatic effect a number of the scenes conclude with the sound of gunfire. Many of the scenes concern incidents that are well known, whether they be the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King JR, but the ones that prove most poignant and revealing are some of the lesser known incidents such as the three scenes that each centre upon Walter Stone, Stan King and Sally Johnson. The exploration of the impact of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut (14/12/2012) is slightly less successful as it teeters on the edge of being mawkish. That said, the individual stories told are moving and all the more so as they are a reminder of promise unfulfilled.
Vandall manages to bring real color, depth and even a touch of dry humor to the tenth scene that sees senior legal figures discussing the District of Columbia versus Heller. History, the Constitution and jealously guarded federal freedoms are evident in an encounter that is both revealing and extremely telling. Statistics are used to great effect and whilst passions are present, the scene exudes the right degree of gravitas in keeping with the Justices involved. This scene also makes use of bathos, something which manages to underscore the seriousness of the topic under discussion.
Essentially this play is a cris de coeur. Reaction to the play will inevitably be dominated by the politics of audience members. Its’ uncomfortable truths will not be warmly received by arms manufacturers or the likes of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Whilst some of the writing clunks a bit and certain scenes would benefit from some judicious editing the spirit and humanity of this piece is never in doubt. The AK47 Chronicles is a clarion call for action, and whether one is a US citizen or not proves a fascinating exploration of elements of the American psyche. Equally it raises interesting questions with regards to rights and responsibilities, something that is relevant to each and every one of us.
Image provided by the author