Jessica Dickey wrote and performed her one-woman show The Amish Project in response to the 2006 school shooting in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, PA. She is very careful, however, to point out that the play, although based on real events, is entirely fictional; no real people’s names are used, and she deliberately did not research the specific individuals who were involved in the actual event.
In the space of a mere 70 minutes, Dickey portrays an impressive line-up of characters, some of whom are directly involved in the shooting, and others who are more peripheral observers. That the piece focuses on the reaction of those involved – including victims, family of the victims, and perhaps most intriguingly, the gunman’s widow -rather than the motives and the crime itself make for a play that is less “true crime” and more philosophical musings. This is almost a relief in a world where school shootings and mass violence are tragically regular occurrences and “why did he do it?” stories are everywhere to be found in the news.
After the Nickel Mines shooting, in which a non-Amish man entered a one room schoolhouse and shot several girls before killing himself, the Amish community shocked the country by immediately extending forgiveness to the gunman and condolences to his widow and children. This “radical act”, as Dickey called it, was in many ways more shocking to the public than the shooting. How could they forgive such a heinous, vicious thing without pause, and how could they stand to have anything to do with the murderer’s family? These are the questions raised throughout the play in a way that challenges the audience to determine their own answers.
Not only did Dickey do an impressive job portraying each of the separate characters but the selection of whose perspective to include was quite telling. By choosing not to portray the gunman as a subhuman monster Dickey expanded the scope of the tragedy beyond the typical stories found in the news. Interestingly enough the most compelling picture of the gunman was presented by his widow as she reminisced about the impact his absence and the early years of their relationship. In light of the image of the gunman presented to us by his grieving widow I felt that the presence of the gunman on stage distracted from the ideas of grief and forgiveness by allowing the focus to shift back to questions about what motivated the gunman to commit such a terrible act.
The Amish Project is part of the Guthrie’s Singular Voices/Plural Perspectives series, which aims to foster community dialogue. There is an audience conversation after each performance, in a laudable attempt to interact with the community on relevant social issues. Side note: people, this is a discussion, not a platform for a couple of long-winded audience members to show off their extensive knowledge of buzzwords and clichés…
It is a sad thing for us as a culture that Dickey’s play remains so relevant 10 years later, but a lucky thing for Twin Cities folks that her performance is available to us, as it’s a terrific way to examine alternate perspectives and ask sobering questions about how we react to such monstrous violence.
The Amish Project, written and performed by Jessica Dickey, runs February 2-14, 2016 in the Dowling Studio of the Guthrie Theater, 818 S 2nd St, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets $15-35 at www.guthrietheater.org