Frank Higgins enjoys the longest established career of any professional playwright living in Kansas City.
And although his plays have been produced on both coasts and at regional theaters across the country, the one that would appear to be most relevant to the times we live in has never been seen here until now.
The first local professional production of “Gunplay” opens Friday at the Aquarium, the venue above the Fishtank Performance Studio near 17th and Wyandotte streets.
“Gunplay” was written on a commission from the Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, Iowa, in response to a 1991 shooting on the University of Iowa campus in which a former graduate student from China killed four faculty members and one student and left another student paralyzed before taking his own life.
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Many plays that find a life in small and large nonprofit theaters address social problems but often seem to offer up easy answers — racism is unconscionable, homophobia is cruel, misogyny is immoral. But those societal evils are self-evident. What sets “Gunplay” apart is its insistence on presenting a balanced argument on the pros and cons of individual gun ownership without clearly taking sides.
“I think of this as an edgy piece,” Higgins said. “But some theaters have felt, ‘Well, what’s the real market for this piece?’ It has scenes that can be clearly regarded as anti-gun and other scenes that can clearly be regarded as pro-gun. But there is no group that doesn’t have its belief system challenged.
“There was a production at a theater in Berkeley (Calif.) and it was part of their set design that there would be human chalk outlines on the floor, and my question was, ‘Well, does that make an anti-gun statement even before the play begins?’ ”
Through the years Higgins has added to or subtracted from the script, depending on current events. He just wrote a new monologue about the issue of concealed-carry on campus.
“It’s hard to sell a play that says, ‘Why don’t you come and have your beliefs challenged at least some of the time?’ ” he said.
The show is being co-directed by Margaret Shelby and Ethan Zogge and features a multiethnic and multigenerational cast: Rasheedat “Ras” Badejo, Connor Branson, Karla Fennick, Joseph Fournier, Laura Jacobs, John Mulvey, Brad Shaw and Meredith Wolfe.
Heidi Van, curator of the Fishtank, said the fundamentals of the gun debate haven’t changed a lot since Higgins wrote the play, although it’s now legal for more people than ever to walk around armed. Kansas passed legislation that takes effect next year to allow concealed carry on state university campuses. Similar legislation has been introduced in Missouri. That will be addressed in one of the newest scenes.
“The play has an equal number of pro- and anti-gun arguments,” she said. “There’s not one character who has a through-line. There are many different scenes that go back and forth. It’s meant to not answer questions but to raise questions and have a conversation about the gun climate and the gun culture.”
The play also examines the concept of “rights.” Gun advocates say private gun ownership is guaranteed in the Constitution. But Van said there’s an equally valid question about the rights of people who choose not to pack a gun.
“When we go to a public place there’s a sense of danger,” said Van. “Not everyone’s rights can be considered. And that’s probably always the case. You allow someone to do something and what are the repercussions for a whole group of people in the community who believe differently? Where’s my right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness? That’s my right as well. And can’t that be sans guns?”
Van is not a gun owner. The production is using wooden props because she didn’t want functioning firearms, even those rigged to shoot only blanks, in her theater.
Higgins inherited a couple of antique weapons from his mother. He sold them. But growing up in San Diego, he was exposed to firearms.
“My dad had a big handgun collection, and on weekends he liked to go out in the desert,” he said. “So he taught me how to shoot when I was 8 or 9 years old. He did all the right things in terms of teaching gun safety. He never had a loaded gun in the house. They were locked away. So for me it was normal to have guns around.”