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    Is student play unsuitable for students?

    The cast can use Bang, Bang, You're Dead in competition - but not at their own school.

    By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 17, 2003

    TAMPA -- A fictional play about a deadly school shooting could win a district drama competition tonight, but it failed to win over King High School administrators who banned its performance before the student body.

    "There were so many people who wanted to come see it and were interested," said Cristina Martin, the play's student director and a senior at the school. "It kind of let us down."

    Administrators said the play -- Bang, Bang, You're Dead -- was inappropriate for high school students.

    "It was a sensitive subject, even in a situation where the moral of the story is a good one," said David Steele, principal of King High School.

    Only a select group of teachers, parents and friends of the actors were permitted to attend a dress rehearsal Wednesday night.

    Written by playwright William Mastrosimone of Enumclaw, Wash., Bang, Bang, You're Dead takes place in the head of an angry high school freshman who guns down five classmates in the school cafeteria.

    During the play his victims visit him, "interrogating him on why and making him realize how he's done something really, really horrible -- how he's ended their lives and his parents and his own," said Kim Mattes Davis, drama teacher at King High School.

    It was Mattes Davis who suggested the play in December when students were brainstorming for District 9 competition entries.

    A group of student officers in the school's thespian group voted to perform it.

    "The best thing about the play is that it presents this subject matter in a way it can be swallowed," said Martin, 17. "It's all in a flashback, but you get to see the progression. This kid is picked on. It is in no way a justification, but you can see two sides of the story."

    On Thursday, the cast of 13 students took the stage at USF's Marshall Center and performed the one-act play during the Florida State Thespians District 9 competition. The winners will be announced tonight.

    "For them to compete on a college campus judged by professionals is different than a high school setting," said Steele, who has not seen the play but read the script twice before contacting school district officials and making his decision in December.

    "I feel like we came up with a reasonable solution," he said.

    Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County schools, said the play has been performed twice by Wharton and Riverview high schools.

    The drama by Mastrosimone, known nationally for his play and for the movie Extremities, has been performed nationwide and is often followed by community discussions on youth violence.

    The author, who wrote the play in 1999 in response to school shootings and a threat written on a blackboard at his son's school, offers it for free on his Web site "Showtime did a rendition of it not long ago," Mattes Davis said. "It's just pertinent today."

    Per the playwright's stipulations "there is no gun on stage and no violence; it's just the retelling of the story," Mattes Davis said. "Honestly, the people who come to plays are more mature, anyway."

    Some student actors said they understand the administration's hesitation.

    "I can identify with Dr. Steele," said senior Chris Nielubowicz, who portrays the teen killer. "You never know. I understand that someone could see the play and get the wrong message, and it could be a spark for violence."

    Steele approved an invitation-only performance in the school's auditorium that drew a crowd of about 100 -- a necessity because competition guidelines require an entry be performed before an audience.

    "I disagreed," director Cristina Martin said of the schoolwide ban. "But at the same time, we have to respect our administrators; and they are letting us compete."

    If the King High thespians win tonight, they will go on to the state competition in April in Tampa.

    If they succeed there, could the play finally be performed before the entire student body?

    "Good question," Mattes Davis said.

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