No Safety Net: Us/Them

This is the second installment of the Michigan Review’s coverage of No Safety Net — a series of provocative theatre performances hosted by the University Musical Society drawing diverse communities together to discuss and re-examine social issues.

Us/Them is the kind of theatre that you will never see in America—at least not in its original context or geared towards its intended audience. The UMS hosted performance, whose run concluded Sunday afternoon, is a Belgian play on the 2004 Beslan school siege, the deadliest school massacre in history that ended with over 300 people dead, 186 of which were elementary aged children, when a group of terrorists seized the school. Us/Them has seldom transcended its national theatres since its creation back in 2014, despite a glowing five star review from The Guardian. The problem? Us/Them’s intended audience is nine to ten-year-olds. And it’s for this exact, controversial reason UMS brought Us/Them to campus: to question the type of media we present to our youth and ask whether this protects them or shelters them from necessary truths of their world.

Us/Them is a two-person performance given by Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, who play a school-aged girl and boy respectively. The play opens as the two unnamed characters enter and begin silently drawing a large chalk diagram. After a few moment of humorous hijinks, which includes accidentally running into each other and fighting over space, the two children jump to their feet and began talking over each other, excitedly speaking to the audience as they explain the chalk drawing represents their school. Their childish excitement runs amok as they tell of their favorite trees and the beginning of the year festivities, dashing erratically around the stage like children on Christmas.

Then, the moment is abruptly shattered as the children point out the exits, which are far from the auditorium they tell us the students are all gathered; this is why the terrorists were able to keep all of us inside, the children declare with the same childish excitement while the horror of this nonchalant observation sends a chill over the audience.

The children walk the audience through the harrowing events of the next three days, embellished with childlike simplicity and dreams. At the beginning of the seizure, as the characters hold their arms in the air as they are held at gunpoint, they excitedly weave an elaborate dream of their fathers pulling off a physically impossible rescue. The dream is acted out with rapid, darting movements as the actors bound across the stage, performing amazing feats of acrobatics as they weave the improbable tale, as loud and exuberant as real children playing make believe on the playground. The dream ends with the stage marred by dozens of layers of crisscrossed string, elaborately strung across the stage to represent the wiring of the bombs the real-life terrorists laid.

For the rest of the play, as dehydration sets in and the bombs go off, as the dead are carried away, this feeling of childlike energy and naiveté is utilized in elaborate attempts by the children to justify and explain the terrible events around them. The play does a phenomenal job of accurately depicting the psychology of how children process and deal with trauma and the actors unnervingly captured an essence of childhood.

How do we prepare children for something so senseless and heinous, and how do we address the stories of the children who perished or were forced to endure such events?

When the curtains fell on the performance I attended, UMS held a community dialogue on the issue of children’s theatre and tragedy, asking the crowd whether or not such material was suitable for children and how events such as school shootings should be addressed in regards to our children; the question is of extreme importance in 2018, where we have had three school shootings in a week, in which some of the victims were only 12, all riding on the curtails of the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. How do we prepare children for something so senseless and heinous, and how do we address the stories of the children who perished or were forced to endure such events?

The dialogue examined these questions, with members of the audience stepping forward with their own personal stories of life-endangering events that transpired during their childhood that were either hidden or obscured from them; one member shared a story of her school bus being shot at and faculty telling them it was just a backfired tire; another of being a young child during the D.C. sniper attacks and yet never having an adult address the dangers. While no clear consensus was made or even attempted, the dialogue/play combination were enlightening, bringing forward uncomfortable truths that many Americans don’t want to deal with: sometimes our children are not safe and there’s nothing we can do about it.

In closing, University of Michigan professor of youth theatre José Casas shared his personal thoughts on the matter. Casas believes that hot topics of death and harrowing near-death experiences, such as surviving a school shooting, should be commemorated in works of youth theatre, even for the little ones, as it not only helps kids begin to understand that the world is dangerous but also gives them the emotional space to deal with these situations so they won’t be caught off-guard when real life crisis occur. He suggests we take a look at who we’re really protecting when we stop young children from viewing material like Us/Them: the children or the adults. Because the world is dangerous and scary, and as much as adults may like to believe otherwise, we can’t always protect our children.

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