For months after the shootings at Columbine High School, every story about the event was dominated by one overarching question: Why did they do it? People kept talking about bullying, teenage alienation, video games, antidepressants, Marilyn Manson, goth culture, parenting styles—as if Columbine were a play and the rest of us were theater critics trying to understand its nuances.
Now, 14 years later, the bandwidth of our public conversations about mass shooters has shrunk dramatically. The charitable folks talk about mental illness, the not-so-charitable talk about "evil," and everyone assumes their usual position for another gun-control standoff. People seem to have lost interest in peering into the depths of a shooter's soul.
But back in 2010, choreographer Dayna Hanson was transfixed by a seven-minute video of a school-board shooting in Panama City, Florida. "It really got under my skin," Hanson says. "It's so rare to see an incident like this captured on video, where you have the opportunity to look at each person and what they did, what they said, how they moved their hands."
In the video, the school board is having a routine meeting when a 56-year-old ex-con and licensed massage therapist named Clay Duke announces: "I have a motion." He pulls out a pistol and tells everyone to leave except for the school board's six men. In an almost comical moment, a female school-board member sneaks up behind Duke and ineffectually whacks him with her purse. He gives her a second chance to leave—she takes it. Duke complains about his wife losing her job as an English teacher, says they're broke with no benefits, and that budget cuts have gutted the district. Then he opens fire, missing everyone. A security guard shoots Duke from behind. Duke shoots himself in the head. His farewell note on Facebook denounces the wealthy and quotes a Percy Shelley poem: "Shake your chains to earth like dew/Which in sleep has fallen on you/Ye are many—they are few."
Hanson was intrigued by how calm the whole thing seemed. The disjunction between the drawn gun and the discussion of taxes and budgets reminded her of Chekhov, she says, and "his interest in the difference between what people say to each other and what they're doing to each other—that gap between action and text." It also reminded her of Charles Bronson vigilante movies. "I feel like there's this subtle influence of Hollywood in what Clay is doing," she says. "Like: 'This is the action, this is going to be it, this is going to restore balance to the universe if I avenge my wife.'"
Hanson assembled a team of actors and dancers including Thomas Graves of the Rude Mechs in Austin, dancers Wade Madsen and Peggy Piacenza, actress Sarah Rudinoff (winner of a Stranger Genius Award), and others to make a show about it. The result is a dense and impressionistic 90-minute riff on the seven-minute source material, with re-created sections of the video and dance sequences based on the real-life physicality of the people involved. Hanson says that in an early stage of the process, everyone in the ensemble learned every step and gesture made by Duke, the lady with the purse, and the rest. Hanson packs a lot into The Clay Duke: letters from Duke to judges, his work as a massage therapist, passages from Chekhov and the Death Wish movies of the 1980s, W.H. Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux Arts" (about how the world doesn't stop just because others are suffering), and an unexpected dance-club sequence with predatory swamp animals.
"There's a certain kind of vanity and outrageousness for me to take this subject on," Hanson admits. But as mass shootings continue with mystifying regularity in America, it's increasingly urgent to dig past the usual explanations and keep asking why.