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Students offer lesson with chilling play

Every spring as the school year winds down, thousands of students stare longingly out of classroom windows, ignoring the droning voices of their teachers and counting down the grueling seconds until summer vacation.

It's a ritual as old as school itself. But it doesn't apply to the students in Kelly Beuth's theater class at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. For them, the final weeks of the school year are some of the most rewarding -- for reasons completely unrelated to the coming summer break.

For the past three months, more than a dozen of Beuth's students have been hard at work on a production of William Mastrosimone's 1999 play "Bang Bang You're Dead." The harrowing production, which opened in the Manny Fried Playhouse on Thursday night under Beuth's direction, is the second in a new series of collaborations between BAVPA students and Kurt Schneiderman's Subversive Theatre Collective.

The show, a disturbing but poetic reflection on school shootings, received an utterly spine-chilling performance from its gifted young cast that left the sold-out opening night audience stunned.

The production was driven by BAVPA student Tamia Horton, who played a character based heavily on Kip Kinkel, the young perpetrator of the 1998 school shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore. Her studied but visceral portrayal, a precise mixture of emotional vulnerability and simmering rage, provided audiences a rare glimpse into the mind and motivations of a perturbed teenage murderer.

But her performance, and those of the young cast who played members of the killer's family and victims, helps students face an issue that is by no means specific to Springfield or Columbine.

There have been and will continue to be teenage killers and killers-in-training on the streets of this city, though their stories may not directly reflect that of the central character in "Bang Bang You're Dead." The fact that Buffalo Public School students are not only facing these issues head-on but broadcasting them far beyond classroom walls is a positive development for which Beuth, her students and Subversive Theatre deserve a great deal of credit.

"Some of our students have been in violent situations or dealt with violent situations in their families," Beuth said. Plays like "Bang Bang You're Dead," she continued, are "a way to teach people about themselves, about others. It's a way to reach people that is more powerful than reading something in the newspaper or hearing something on the radio, to be able to put yourself in the story, to be able to put yourself in somebody else's shoes. And it's powerful for not only the actor but the audience as well."

In the heated conversations about Buffalo's broken public school system, sometimes small stories of success like BAVPA and Subversive's collaboration get lost in the noise. But increasingly, innovative art, language and theater projects are leaving the confines of Buffalo's public schools and making bigger and bolder statements to the community.

Another promising example, among many, is now visible on Main Street outside the Ellicott Square, where students from Middle Early College High School have launched a summerlong guerrilla art and poetry campaign featuring eight brightly painted bicycles scrawled with powerful lines of poetry. "Peoples," a powerful local play about the lives of Buffalo's public school students, just wrapped up its run at the American Repertory Theatre of Western New York.

It's all evidence of a growing realization, propelled by the arts, that some of the most important stories in the city have gone untold for too long. Now, thanks to the work of people like Beuth and her students, there are plenty of opportunities to start listening.