Forgiveness in the face of sheer evil is a foreign concept for most of us. Yet for the guarded Amish community in a tiny rural Pennsylvania town, it was the correct response to an act of unimaginable terror.
On October 2, 2006 in Lancaster County, 32 year-old Charles Carl Roberts IV entered a one room school house with a handgun and forced 10 pre-teen girls against the wall. He proceeded to shoot them, injuring 5 and leaving 5 others dead. Roberts, who left 4 suicide notes then turned the gun on himself.
What followed was an astonishing act of mercy. There was no finger pointing. There were no campaigns on social media. There was no looting. There was no vengeance. There was simply community bonding and expressions of kindness to Roberts’ remaining family.
On July 27th, as part of the New York Musical Festival, the story will be shared as a non-traditional musical called Nickel Mines. It will continue through July 31st at The Duke Theater.
The show is written by Rochester, New York native Andrew Palermro and Shannon Stoeke. Dan Dyer provides the music and lyrics. Manhattan Digest recently spoke with co-author, director, and choreographer Palermo over the phone to discuss the unique sensibility of the material.
MD: I imagine you traveled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania when you were creating the show?
AP: Actually, we did not. It was all done via research and in other ways. It would make sense in an investigative way, but we consciously decided not to go that route because it’s what separates an interpretation versus a documentary. It felt like having that distance gave us leeway to give our own interpretation.
MD: This is such an unlikely topic to get stage treatment. At what point did you decide to make it theater material?
AP: Three years ago, when I was living in Long Beach, CA, I had the idea. CNN was on in the background and there was an updated news story about the 2006 shooting. The Amish refer to the shooting as “the happening”. I started to research the story and found that the Amish response was immediate and public forgiveness of the killer. In my mind and in my co-author’s mind, that doused what would be the usual media maelstrom. It didn’t live in the press like it normally would. The forgiveness quotient of how the Amish responded and how that informed everything around the happening is really the heart of this piece. How can one forgive, go on, and not hold inherent anger? I’m a huge anti-gun violence advocate as well, but we’re not imposing morality into the show. We just put the facts on the table with an artistic interpretation.
MD: The Amish community tends to be quite private. Did they offer any input or advice into the show?
AP: No. We didn’t go that route either. Most everything in the show is pulled from actual news stories. The Amish live amongst us, but they are their own specific community with their own rules and conventions, which is something that fascinates me. I’m also drawn to stories about faith and how blind faith makes people do or not do certain things. Their reaction to events is totally driven by their beliefs.
MD: Forgiveness is a predominant theme in this piece. Our natural human nature tends towards justice and/or revenge. Why do you think the Amish were able to rise above that?
AP: The Amish version of Christianity, known as “Anabaptist” ,states that this life on earth is only preparation for the afterlife to be with God. Everything done here is in service to that. Hence, anything that is a distraction to God and to their faith is forbidden. They want to stay as pure as possible and keep their direct line of communication as open so that when the time comes, they will ascend to the kingdom of heaven. If they buy into what the rest of us deal with on a daily basis, it is a recipe for disaster for them.
MD: How has working on this show changed your own ability to forgive?
AP: In my personal life, I’m a huge anti-gun violence advocate. I believe in helping communities that are oppressed and need support. However, we (the show’s creators) created two characters in the show that are purely fictional. They reflect our own response to how we would have reacted. We’re not sure that we could have reacted in the same way as the Amish did had it happened in our own families.
MD: I’m really excited to see it, but it will be quite heavy to watch.
AP: We do our best to not live in the depths for the whole show. Our takeaway is to shine a light on forgiveness and prove that even through the darkest tragedies, you can still find hope.
MD: The debate over gun control and how to curb gun violence continues to rage. Every day we see news of school shootings, police shootings, etc. What do you hope that people will learn about the issue from this show?
AP: In this instance, there was no motive for the shootings. No one really saw the killer going down this road. The big argument is that we need to turn our focus to mental health, and of course we do. But this killer had no discernible mental issues. There is really no easy answer, but we can’t keep chasing the reason. We need to look at the common denominator, which are the weapons themselves.
MD: Tell us what type of music we can expect from Dan Dyer’s score?
AP: The music is original, but the lyrics are pulled from the “ausbund”, which is the Amish hymnal. It’s the oldest living hymnal in existence.
MD: This has already debuted at the University of California in Irvine and will play NYMF later this month. Are there any plans beyond that?
AP: Sure. We hope to attract some producers and have it be seen by as many people as possible. When we did it at UC Irvine, we had talkbacks after the show. It was so encouraging to see 18 to 90 year olds asking the same questions and being mutually affected. They were having a communal experience in spite of age, race, or politics. We want to tell this story until it doesn’t have to be told anymore but unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be anytime soon.
Nickel Mines at New York Musical Festival will play at the Duke Theater (West 42nd between 7th and 8th) on the following dates and times. For tickets and more information, click on the dates below: