Link to article: https://www.jacksonville.com/news/20190409/new-play-gives-voice-to-those-haunted-by-jacksonvilles-worst-mass-shooting
By Matt Soergel
A week after a teen gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Tim Gilmore published a piece on his website about Jacksonville’s most notorious mass shooting on June 18, 1990. A man angry that his Pontiac Grand Am had been repossessed walked into the GMAC office on Baymeadows Way, methodically shot and killed nine people, wounded four more and then killed himself.
Afterward, Gilmore started hearing from people: I was there. My mother was there. I lost someone there.
So he sat down with them, took down their words, their powerful, anguished words, and turned them into a play called “Repossessions: Mass Shooting in Baymeadows,” which premieres Thursday at Florida State College at Jacksonville’s South Campus.
He figures that about 85 percent of the words in the play are theirs, verbatim. Nothing could match them. “It became pretty obvious to me early on that nothing I could do could be as powerful as their stories, their words,” he said.
“Repossessions” doesn’t act out the killings; instead the story is told through monologues, two or three pages long, as characters tell of the events of that day and the reverberations that continue, almost 30 years later.
“There’s no guns, no gun violence,” said director Ken McCulough, who’s heading his 50th production for FSCJ. “It treats [characters] with honesty, integrity and respect because it’s their words, their voice.”
Joseph Mercedes Marrero, 19, a theater major, admitted he was taken aback when he got his long pages of dialogue to play his character, a Jacksonville police officer whose wife was killed that day. He was more and more moved as he dug deeper into the words.
“I want to be as honest as possible, and the more I read it the more it got into my head,” Mercedes said. “I grew up in Wisconsin. I’m not a very emotional guy, I’m not really connected to someone like my character is. To genuinely care that much about someone is special, and then to have it boom! — to have it gone — that was very hard for me to handle.”
It’s inevitable that the specter of other mass murders hangs over the play.
“When this shooting happened it was considered a, quote, ‘freak occurrence,’ ” Gilmore said. “People said that. No one can say that now.”
At the time, GMAC was Florida’s worst mass shooting, and it remained so until 49 people were massacred at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016. And the New Zealand mosque shootings happened when the cast was in rehearsals, which set off some discussions on the set.
None of the 14 actors in “Repossessions” was alive when the events in the play happened (Gilmore himself was just 15), but other shootings have come close to home.
Cast member Autumn Franks, 23, mentioned August’s mass shooting at The Jacksonville Landing when a gunman murdered two people, injured about 10 more and killed himself during a video game tournament. She had thought about going to the event, but didn’t. Three of her friends did, though. Two had just left when the shooting started and another had briefly stepped outside.
Growing up in Jacksonville, the Landing was a familiar spot. “The Landing is just where we went, and now it’s happened here, and Parkland was so close,” she said.
McCulough said that while “Repossessions” deals frankly with the toll of gun violence, it shouldn’t be seen as an anti-gun play, since each character’s perspective is honored. The characters played by Franks and Mercedes, for example, come down squarely on opposite side of the gun-control debate.
“Something the play doesn’t do, it doesn’t offer an answer,” Mercedes said. “It gives you a bunch of different scenarios, it shows you a bunch of different people with a bunch of different opinions, and it goes back to you to make a choice. It asks: How do you feel?”
There are 14 characters, all played by students. The killer, James Edward Pough, though a shadowed presence at times on stage, has no lines and the characters don’t interact with him.
He is a ghost.
“This person that none of them knew, who interacted with them for such a brief period of time, what he did haunts them, 30 years later,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore is an FSCJ English professor and prolific writer on Jacksonville history, both in book form and on his website jaxpsychogeo.com.
“Repossessions” is his second play and second collaboration with McCulough. The first was about Ottis Toole, a convicted killer from Jacksonville whose story Gilmore had turned into a book. Grim topics, to be sure.
“I told Tim that if we collaborate again we’ll need to do something a little lighter on Jacksonville history,” McCulough said.
Gilmore laughed. “I’m seriously thinking love stories,” he said.
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082