The play “Office Hour,” at ArtsWest through May 26, draws from the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech. Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year old student who had immigrated from South Korea as a child, killed 32 other students and himself and injured dozens of others.
Playwright Julia Cho recalled in an email to The Seattle Globalist how the Virginia Tech shooting — at the time the deadliest shooting committed by a single person — affected her.
“This shooting was particularly difficult for me. The fact that I shared a background — being Korean-American — and even a last name with the shooter made this shooting feel more personal. I felt that even if I didn’t know someone exactly like the shooter, I knew people like his family, his community.”
Julia Cho is a prolific and award-winning playwright and screenwriter. The first production of “Office Hour” was in April 2016 at South Coast Rep, a large regional theatre in Orange County, CA. The lead female character was played Sandra Oh — who would be cast as the awkward but skillful spy in the lauded television series “Killing Eve” a few months later.
The play, directed by Mathew Wright, opens with a black teacher (Varinique Davis) and a white teacher (Nik Doner) who both worry over the violent, rape-filled poems written by a strange, silent young man who other students complain about. But they can’t kick him out of the class. He turns in his assignments on time.
He doesn’t say anything at all, they protest; he is a wall. His vile poems include pedophilia, violent sex scenes, and he and other students refuse to read them out loud as they are required to do. The two teachers profile him as a classic type of loner who becomes a shooter.
They pose scenarios: he’ll be OK, will kill himself or will take other lives with him.
The sullen student named Dennis (diligently played by the talented Christian Quinto) comes in for a mandatory meeting with an instructor and counselor named Gina (played with naturalistic sympathy by Naho Shioya).
The play revolves around Gina’s attempts to reach Dennis through writing and a shared background. But Dennis’ responses are chilling.
“I am dead,” he says at one point. “Everyone hates me. Life is unbearable and they’re to blame.”
He complains about his treatment in America and social differences — “the whiteness” of the world he inhabits. He states that he “can’t be American.” She gives him a hug but he takes it too far.
He reveals that shooting is his only hobby, because it calms him. He carries a gun for protection although it’s against school rules. He shows her the gun and lets her hold it.
“Office Hour” and the shooting at Virginia Tech raise complex issues around identity and mental health. Other artists have explored these issues, including Seattle composer Byron Au Yong. He spent a year working and teaching at Virginia Tech to create a healing choral piece around the shooting. In the creation of the piece, he extensively researched mass shootings and Seung-Hui Cho.
“Asian males need support,” he said, for the effects of racism and stereotypes that American society places on the immigrant.
Au Yong also said that our country is shifting in the way it is thinking about school shootings.
“Students are coming of age in an age of guns,” he said in a phone interview. “Campus shootings are now being studied as a public health issue, to be dealt with like we used to learn about seat belts.”
Playwright Julia Cho also said the issues around mass shootings call for a systemic solution.
“Nor do I think it is just a mental health issue,” she said. “Many shooters are not psychotic or mentally ill. Many of them are lonely, angry and isolated. And the fact there are so many of them points to a larger social and cultural dynamic. We are all part of the problem and we all have to be part of the solution.”
Cho doesn’t place the blame on the teachers or faculty.
“Part of the tragedy of mass shootings in educational settings is that we are relying on people — educators, administrators, students — to deal with unimaginable circumstances that they are not trained for or ever signed up for. I definitely do not place the burden of responsibility on staff or teachers to prevent mass shootings. They are doing an extraordinary job as is.”
Cho also said the sense of identity was also an important aspect to explore.
“As a writer, I’m always trying to figure out how to tell the story of who I am and where I come from,” she said. “A lot of the time, this means trying to tell the story of what it is to be Korean-American. The story of Virginia Tech, though tragic and difficult to bear, felt like it was part of that story.”
“Office Hour,” a 90-minute play by Julia Cho, will be presented at ArtsWest through May 26.