Thirteen years ago next week, 11-year-old Andrew Golden pulled the fire alarm at Westside Middle School, on the outskirts of Jonesboro, Arkansas. Golden then ran back to the woods overlooking the school, where 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson was waiting with the seven rifles and handguns they’d stolen from Golden’s grandfather. As students and teachers filed out onto Westside’s playground, Golden and Johnson opened fire. Four students and a teacher were killed, and ten others injured.
A native of Bono, Arkansas, a town of about 1,600 near Jonesboro, Mary Hollis Inboden was one of the Westside students on the playground on March 24, 1998. Her best friend, Paige, was among those killed. “Every time we have an anniversary of the shooting, and me being away from my hometown, it gets tougher and tougher,” she says, her voice breaking a bit. “Because with age, I was developing a vocabulary of exactly how sad the shooting was to experience at 12.”
Now 25, Inboden is a Chicago actor and a member of the New Colony, the three-year-old theater company known for collaboratively devised new works such as Amelia Earhart Jungle Princess and Calls to Blood. She says she’s long had it in the back of her mind to make a play about what came to be known, thanks to CNN and others, as the Westside Middle School Massacre.
After the success of the New Colony’s first real drama—Blood was a hit in its 2009 run at the Royal George and again at last summer’s FringeNYC—Inboden was ready to propose her Westside story. “I finally figured out what I wanted it to be. I wanted it to not be a school-shooting play,” she says, referencing Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli’s Columbinus and others. “I wanted the show to be a play about individuals—grown-ups, more specifically—who had suffered and survived this tragic event when they were children. That was the interesting story to me, not a rehash of the day’s events.”
Working with playwright Evan Linder and director Benno Nelson, Inboden honed the idea for The Warriors (named for Westside’s school mascot). “It was kind of a puzzle when Mary brought it to me: ‘I might want to do a show about Jonesboro, if we can,’ ” Linder says after a recent rehearsal at Lincoln Square’s DANK Haus German cultural center.
The trio determined that Inboden would contact her former classmates and ask them to talk about their lives now and how their present is affected by the shared tragedy in their past; Linder and Inboden then traveled to Arkansas for in-person interviews. The New Colony used these primary-source texts to construct a fictionalized but truthful account.
“That was something that was important to me right off the bat. If the interview aspect was going to be too heightened, that was going to be a lot less interesting,” Nelson says, noting that they didn’t want to produce a Laramie Project–style docuplay. (Both Nelson and assistant director Christopher Shea are TOC contributors.)
The process became part of the play: In the show, Inboden plays herself, reaching out to her classmates (represented by four composite characters). That’s the part that Inboden says scared her the most in real life.
“I sat on those e-mails for three and a half months because I was so nervous about sending it out. I literally had not talked to some of these people since I was 16, of the class of 89 people,” she says.
“I had anxiety that the response would be: Still too soon, still too much, don’t make a play about this thing. But the responses were amazing. All of that anxiety was for naught,” she adds. “A lot of the Warriors are coming to see the show.”
The Warriors starts previews Thursday 17 and opens Sunday 20 at the Second Stage.