Five years after a mass shooting at their high school, the survivors gather for the first time and share their trauma, grief and anger with each other. This is the premise of Toxic, a new play by playwright Kit Wilder premiering at City Lights Theater Company this Thursday.
The play, Wilder says, is “about the shocking and tragic lack of civility in our public discourse. We’ve lost the capacity to talk to each other.”
In staging it, he hopes to encourage people to talk about difficult topics—like gun violence in the U.S. Though there is an abundance of news coverage of the subject, Wilder says the play seeks to add to public discourse in a meaningful way.
“Theater brings to life things that, often, we have become used to, or hardened to, or numbed to,” Wilder says. “You can go to the theater and suddenly be awakened to something you have not thought of, or not felt, for years.”
Sitting in one of the rooms where the shooting occurred five years previously, 11 survivors gather for the first time since another student at their private high school opened fire. The violence left several dead, including a beloved teacher.
Each of the characters holds trauma from that horrific day, shared in some ways but also unique. Only through speaking with each other and sharing those wounds are they able to move “from solitary anger to communal grief,” according to the play’s description.
“For the first time they get together and debrief and talk about their experience,” Wilder says. “How they feel and how they can possibly move on.”
Wilder does not shy away from the fact that the production will delve into difficult material.
“There’s descriptions of horrific violence in the piece,” he says. However, he believes it is important for this subject to be discussed on stage. “The play is about what we’re going through right now.”
At the heart is the issue of gun violence in the U.S. and how “certain trends in our national discourse [are] toxic,” Wilder says, revealing the source of the play’s name.
After the performance, the production’s creators will have an “onstage gathering with the audience,” he adds, an opportunity for the audience to stay and talk about what they’ve seen, if they’d like.
The idea for the piece came from students at Shenandoah University in Virginia, where Wilder teaches. He was asked to write a play for the graduating class of 2019.
“They were really, really keen on doing something about gun violence. And so I took that as my cue,” he says. “That was, in a sense, merely the germ of what Toxic has become. But that’s how it started.”
People murdered 20,958 people with guns nationwide in 2021. This accounts for 81 percent of all murders in the country. That same year, there were 61 FBI-defined “active shooter incidents”—more than one a week—according to the Pew Research Center. In 2022, the nonprofit group Gun Violence Archive counted nearly 650 mass shootings in America. Already, in 2023, there have been over 400.
Wilder says he’s pissed.
“The issues that we’re facing today are tragic and shameful. I’m embarrassed sometimes to be an American.”
Art, however, presents a rare opportunity to raise these difficult issues outside the gridlock of national politics. Instead of pretending to have the answers to a problem that can often feel intractable, he hopes to start a conversation through the experience of theater and inspire people to connect with each other.
“Theater is a communal event. You sit and you go through the same experience with, at City Lights, you know, a hundred other people at the same time,” he says. “There is no substitute for that, in my opinion.”
Now that it’s ready for opening, Wilder is excited to see his production come to life. It’s his fourth at City Lights, and for the first time he wasn’t directly involved in the production.
“It’ll be interesting to actually sit there,” he says. “Usually I sort of wander the halls.”
Opens Thu, 8pm $28+
Through Oct 15
City Lights, San Jose