Next month will be ten years since the deadliest school shooting in U.S. History. On April 16th, 2007, a student at Virginia Tech shot 49 people, killing 32 of them and finally, himself. Most of the students who were there on the day of the tragedy have moved away new and ones have arrived, a familiar pattern in college towns. But the Blacksburg community continues to remember and reflect on what happened that day.
Everyone in Blacksburg knows exactly where they were when they heard there’d been a mass shooting at the University. Melissa Ripepi recalls, she was at work in her office in Burruss Hall near the center of campus, when she heard the noise coming from a building nearby.
“So I just remember you heard like a pop and like a few little pops, which in my memory, and who knows if it's accurate or not, it just kind of washed over me and then you really hear it and you realize it’s not construction noise.
It was the sound of gunfire.
A Korean American student, whom many described as a loner, had shot 2 people in another campus building and was in the process of shooting dozens more.
“Maybe 10 years later with the trajectory of mass shootings in our country, maybe now your mind would go there," said Ripepi. “But at that point in time, Columbine was the only touch stone for something of that scale.”
In the days and weeks that followed there was raw pain and so much grief, for the victims, their families…
“And it’s not just, you know, it goes throughout the community, to the people who were down town, who heard the sirens. “
And soon Blacksburg was at the center of that familiar media focus that comes, unbidden after tragic events.
Anita Puckett is a linguistic anthropologist who teaches at Virginia Tech who voices the concerns many people had, as the news of the tragedy spread, and the news media converged on the town.
“One of the things that bothered me enormously, as I watched all this coverage was how they were making the story. “
She acknowledges the media’s need to report the story, to get the facts. But she resented the speculation, the attempts at explanation, and their framing of the story.
“They were creating the narrative of what had happened. And they were claiming ownership of that narrative in their various media broadcasts. And, I’m going ‘no, it’s our misery, our narrative. And whose story is it going to be over time?”
Eventually, the media spotlight faded, but processing this extreme act of violence became part of the culture in this southwest Virginia town. There were vigils, public events and private dinners at people’s homes, that continue to this day.
Three years ago, The Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech commissioned a work of art aimed directly at exploring the issue of gun violence.
To create the oratorio, avant-garde composer, Byron Au Yong and hip hop playwright, Aaron Jafferis talked with dozens of people from all over Blacksburg. Charlotte Brathwaite who is directing the new work say, “It’s like literally the voices of the community speaking out about the issues that they feel connected to.”
And some of them were cast in this choral hip-hop theater production.
Au Yong says, “That’s what opened up the idea of breaking the fourth wall.”
That’s when the imaginary wall between the performers and the audience seems to disappear.
“If you come as an audience member, you may be sitting next to someone who, all of a sudden starts singing.”
They wanted the piece to feature many layers of human voices, says Aaron Jafferis, to illustrate its theme, which is exploring why “Young people decide that they want to silence many voices in order to make their own voice metaphorically large. We recognize that we need to flip that and use this one project as an opportunity to engage and give the platform to multiple voices. “
The work is called (Be)longing. It premiers in Blacksburg March 17, a month before the ten year commemoration of the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech. Over the next 2 years the show will be produced and performed with local casts in Miami, New Haven, and San Francisco.
The Moss Arts Center will present two performances of “(Be)longing” on March 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets for the performance are $25 for general admission and $10 for students and youth 18 and under. Tickets can be purchased online; at the Moss Arts Center's box office, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; or by calling 540-231-5300 during box office hours.
(Be) longing is produced by ArKtype/ Thomas O. Kriegsmann.