Students confront past and present of school shootings in play about Columbine attack

CHICAGO -- Nineteen years ago next month, two students at Columbine High School in Colorado changed the lives of students who attended there forever. For all of us, really.

This month, the Chicago Academy for the Arts is replaying the events of that horrible day to honor the 13 victims and its countless survivors. It’s only natural, they claim, that this school rooted in the arts is putting on the play called “Columbinus.”

It’s a raw, moving interpretation of the events from April 20, 1999. In the academy's performance of it, high school kids will play the roles of real high school kids who never got to see tomorrow. The play has been around since 2005, but the students putting on the docudrama were not even alive when the attack took place.  For them, this is an historical event. As part of this school project, all 14 students in the play were asked to research the 13 victims, and then presented their lives to their fellow classmates.

“Columbinus” is a first-person, narrative documentary-style play that was created by Chicago playwrights and has been performed all over the country ever since, including on college campuses including Harvard and Northwestern.

But this year, Chicago Academy for the Arts students are taking on the most serious topic of their young lives: gun violence in schools. They call themselves the “mass shooting generation,” and the Columbine massacre is a cornerstone of America's sad history of school shootings. The play is also hitting close to home because months into rehearsals, the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., took place.

“There’s a nervous energy about it. This is an emotional piece and people will have an emotional response to it,” Ceridwyn Quaintance, a senior, said.

About 75 percent of  the teenage cast took part in the national walkout last week. They are the same ones who will portray the stereotypes found in schools across the globe.

The head of school Jason Patera says he has not received one single call to complain about the subject matter.

“My initial gut reaction is, ‘Oh jeez, there is no way we can do this.’ But immediately that is superseded by, 'We have to do this play. If we can’t do it, who else is going to tell this story?” Patera said.

Unafraid to take on challenging work, the cast is staring down the barrel of gun violence with the best weapon they’ve got.

The play runs this weekend at the Chicago Academy for the Arts and is open to the public.

For more information, visit chicagoacademyforthearts.org.