Before the phrase “mass shooting” became indelibly associated with a host of recent events, there was a mass shooting at the University of Iowa, back in 1991.

In response, Riverside Theatre in Iowa City wanted to stage a play about guns and invited playwrights to submit proposals.

“I told them, I don’t know exactly what to do, but I know what not to do, which is write a docudrama about that specific event,” said Frank Higgins, who teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “If you were to do that, it would become like a made-for-TV movie.”

One way that the script Higgins wrote, “Gunplay,” is unlike a docudrama is that it presents many stories, rather than one.

“That was my idea, to write a play that was a mosaic of America,” Higgins said. “There would be some scenes you could characterize as anti-gun and some you could characterize as pro-gun.”

The play was chosen by Riverside Theatre, then received a reading on Capitol Hill in 1993, when congress was considering passing the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. 

Higgins’ work will now be staged at Salem State University, starting Thursday, with its full title, “Gunplay: A Play About America.”

The mass shooting in Iowa involved a graduate student from China who lost a competition for an academic fellowship and killed five people at the awards ceremony using his collection of rifles and handguns.

Higgins said that the student’s life had unusual elements, because he came from a country where private citizens were not allowed to own guns, and he had apparently “fallen in love with Clint Eastwood movies.”

But Higgins chose to focus entirely on the American context, and that is emphasized in the play’s subtitle, which also captures the range of topics and settings that “Gunplay” addresses.

“This play could roam all over time, to scenes with George and Martha Washington, and Bat Masterson,” he said. “You can move all around the society. You’re not limited by geography or time period.” 

Higgins, who began his writing career as a poet, compares “Gunplay” to the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens.

“This is ‘ways of looking at guns in America,’” he said.

The play is being guest-directed at Salem State by Lynn resident Benny Sato Ambush, who has a long career as an artistic director, director and university professor around the country.

He has known Higgins since the early 1990s and has used scenes and vignettes from “Gunplay” with students in class, but this will be the first time he has directed a “fully realized production” of the play. 

“Frank through the years has tweaked it, added current events, and sadly, it’s perennially topical,” Ambush said. 

The script looks at guns as a way to examine “the American profile and character,” Ambush said, but stays away from politics.

“Frank doesn’t approach the politics head-on,” Ambush said. “What he does is present a series of recognizable human situations in which the issues are raised, and by presenting those situations and posing questions, he asks the audience to relate with it and come to their own conclusions.”

Ambush said that an actor’s job is to “do all the character work, invest fully in the points of view that these characters espouse, even if they counter what the actor personally believes, because an actor has to play what’s given and commit to it fully, and that is what we have done.”   

“Gunplay” is at times poignant, humorous, satirical and even silly, he said, while at other times, it is searing and penetrating, but it is always moving emotionally.

There is a scene in which a father and son bond through guns, as the father teaches his son to shoot and to use guns responsibly.

“The piece is seven or eight minutes long, but it’s from childhood up through the father dying of cancer, when they talk at his deathbed about hunting season,” Higgins said.

In another scene, Masterson, a legendary lawman from the days of America’s Wild West, is preparing to give a talk about his exploits at a banquet in New York.

Higgins said he learned that Masterson would make money at these events by selling handguns with notches in their handles, which supposedly had belonged to former outlaws.

“He had to drink heavily to do these things, because part of what he was doing is lying,” Higgins said. 

One of the more current scenes that Higgins has included is based on personal experience and involves a professor who has a mentally unbalanced student.

“My issue became, what do you do if you have a student who is delusional and — if I break the person’s delusion, does that put me in danger?” Higgins said. “Can I defend myself? What do I do?”

If you go

What: “Gunplay: A Play About America”

When: Oct. 17, 18, 19, 24, 25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 20 and 27 at 2 p.m. Post-show talk with director Benny Sato Ambush on Oct. 20 and pre-show talk on Oct. 24 at 6:30 p.m. with Ambush and playwright Frank Higgins.

Where: Sophia Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, Salem State University, 356 Lafayette St., Salem

How much: $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and students, and free for those under 18 and Salem State students.

More information: 978-542-6365 or www.salemstatetickets.com 

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