New San Jose play takes on the horror of school shootings

New San Jose play takes on the horror of school shootings

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.

Your children are at school when somebody comes in with a gun and starts shooting. And it happens over and over again in the United States in a way it doesn’t anywhere else in the world.

“This is a scourge on our nation, and it’s shameful,” says playwright Kit Wilder. “The incidence of gun violence in this country is indeed a cancer, but perhaps even worse than that, because cancer kills us slowly. This is killing us outright every day. And something has to be done. “

That’s what led Wilder to write “Toxic,” his play now getting its world premiere at San Jose’s City Lights Theater, in which survivors of a school shooting meet five years later to try to process what happened.

A former City Lights’ associate artistic director, Wilder has directed many plays for the company over the years, including some of his own: his adaptation of “Frankenstein” and the play “Truce: A Christmas Wish from the Great War” coauthored with Jeffrey Bracco, who’s now directing “Toxic.”

Wilder and Bracco have performed in their share of City Lights productions as well.

Wilder first started writing “Toxic” in 2019 as an actors’ showcase for students at Virginia’s Shenandoah University, where he now teaches.

“I had taught the playwriting class here maybe the term before,” Wilder recalls. “And when it came time for them to do their senior showcase, instead of just doing a selection of scenes and monologues and whatnot, they came to me and said, ‘Hey, would you write us a play?’ And I did. And it stank. It was unwieldy, and it really didn’t know what it was about.

“But then we sat down and talked about what in there. Was there anything in there that spoke to them? They liked the idea of gun violence and where’s the civility in our national politics anymore, so I took that and ran with that, structured in a way that there was a story but also everybody had their own individual moments, since it was a showcase for their talents. They performed that both here at Shenandoah University and at a showcase in New York, so I guess it counts as my first New York production. And then I just got to thinking, this may be an important piece, so I started working on it.”

After many rewrites and some back-and-forth with the City Lights board and artistic director Lisa Mallette, what emerged was a very different, more polished “Toxic” that’s now making its world premiere at the theater.

Once he decided to write about this topic, Wilder says, “there was no holding me back.”

It’s a theme that never seems to grow outdated — except numerically.

“The statistics that I put in the play in 2019 about the incidence of mass shootings — which is a shooting of four or more without a cooling-off period — I would never stop writing it if I were to keep it always up to date,” he says. “Because every month, every week, every day we’re facing more and more of these.”

Even more alarming is that American’s are growing numb to it all, says Wilder.

“At one point in the play, a character bemoans the fact that back in the days of Columbine, we were shocked. Nowadays we shrug and say, ‘Another one. Who’s gonna do something about this?’ We keep kicking the can down the road. It’s tragic.”

Four years after first writing the play, Wilder says, “I unfortunately find it every day more topical. And it’s not only because of the shootings. I find it shameful that if you and I disagree on certain political issues, we can’t talk about it anymore. Our founding fathers would be turning in their graves at our behavior with each other and our inability to not necessarily even meet in the middle, just talk about the middle, or talk with civility about what you believe or what I believe. That’s a very big part of what the play is ultimately about.”

Contact Sam Hurwitt at shurwitt@gmail.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.


World premiere, by Kit Wilder, presented by City Lights Theater Company

When: Sept. 14-Oct. 15

Where: City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose

Tickets: $28-$67; 408-295-4200, www.cltc.org