The award-winning playwright E.M. Lewis grew up in rural Oregon, surrounded by guns. There were shotguns by the back door as protection against an intruder, because police were an hour away. She learned to shoot on a date with her husband-to-be.
“I own a gun,” she writes in her autobiographical play, “The Gun Show.” “Where I come from, it’s the kind of present guys give their women folk after they’ve been going out for a while: paper, cotton, leather, linen, automatic handguns.”
Then Lewis found herself on the other end of a barrel during a robbery in Salem, then she lost a loved one to a gunshot, and her relationship with guns got a lot more complicated.
In “The Gun Show,” at CoHo Theater through Oct. 1, Lewis shares five stories about firearms drawn from her life — stories that seem to embody every side of the gun debate, in the hopes of bridging the extremes with a nuanced middle ground.
“Theater’s the tool that I got, and so that’s the tool that I’m using, in whatever small way I can, to say I think we can listen to each other,” she told OPB in the Green Room after the dress rehearsal. “By figuring out what we have in common with each other, we can achieve a better community, society, and country.”
As the double-entendre of the title implies, the play is a thing of many layers, both hilarious and emotionally gripping. Lewis has written “The Gun Show” as a one-man show, literally: there is a man playing her, while she sits in the audience, watching.
“That it was a male voice telling a woman’s story allows for both a masculine and a feminine perspective to live within the play at the same time,” she said.
Portland actor Vin Shambry plays Lewis with vigor and pep, shifting fluidly from a “Reservoir Dogs” reenactment to a joke to a story about heart-breaking loss at the end of a barrel. He oscillates between speaking from Lewis’s point of view and speaking to Lewis, in a move that not only punctures the fourth wall, but that has the effect of making each story indelibly real for the audience: we see the reaction in the playwright’s face, as Shambry reenacts each story.
“My own inner struggle as a man of color in America is that I think about dying every day,” said Shambry of his own relationship with guns. “I am terrified of guns. When I was a kid, guns were not for hunting: we were the hunted, so we would run away from them.
“That’s another exciting thing about being an adult now,” he added. “The thing that I get to learn is that I need to play the joy of what that is, and really actually figure that out from her perspective.”
He is going so far as to visit a shooting range to try to experience what gun-enthusiasts enjoy about firearms.
“The Gun Show” has been performed around the country, but this is the first home state production. Coho has been inviting people to submit their own gun stories via social media, and each show closes with an opportunity for audience members to share their own stories.
At the dress rehearsal, the high school students in attendance talked freely about a range of experiences, from one student who said he is afraid to tell people that his hipster family loves to shoot guns at their cabin to a student who said he would never own a gun because of his history with suicide attempts.
But for many of the teens who grew up in Portland, guns were a distant thing, something they knew mainly through television and the vociferous gun debate, which is exactly the kind of viewpoint the play takes aim at.
“We viewed it as very strange for a family to own a gun,” said 19-year-old Ned Grade of his childhood growing up in a progressive, urban family. “But more watching this show than any time in my life, I was able to be like, oh, yeah, some people just grow up with guns. I know that’s such a simple conceit, but I didn’t realize that that was hard for me to comprehend until watching this.”