Wielding weapons on stage in ‘Les Miz’ makes students confront gun violence

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The William Penn Charter School in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia does a musical every year. It’s usually light fare, like “Beauty and the Beast,” “Hair Spray,” or “Godspell.”

Last spring it began planning this year’s musical, leaning toward “Rent,” but head of school Darryl Ford wanted to tackle a more serious show — “Les Miserables,” his favorite Broadway musical.

“It’s challenging vocally. You have to have strong singers, and you have to have a lot of strong singers,” said Jessica Bender, manager of the school’s Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts. “Other shows, you can get away with one or two. In this show, you need about 16 very strong singers. Fortunately, we have that this year.”

It’s an ambitious show, particularly for a high school, with 50 cast members and 23 musicians in the orchestra pit. More than 100 students have been working to produce this weekend’s three performances.

But you need more than good singers to do “Les Miz.” You have to have guns — a lot of guns.

“We are a Quaker school. So the idea of weaponry in any situation has to be considered,” said Bender. “The idea of trying to tell this story without guns — we would not be telling this story.”

“Les Miserables” tells a very romantic tale about the Paris Uprising of 1832, when a group of idealistic students took up arms against the monarchy of King Louis-Philippe. The musical’s most iconic scene — a cobblestone street barricaded by a pile of junk — is where the doomed rebels fall to the royal army.

The student playing the rebel leader is Jaleel Bivins, a junior at Penn Charter.

“What is this person dragging these kids into? I realize it’s for a change,” said Bivins. “But these kids are still going to get gunned down. It makes me think about what I do. It’s made me less goofy. I’m a silly person, generally, but it’s made me less goofy.

“I want to nail this. I want to bring it to life.”

Biven’s character dies in the gunfight, alongside eight other characters. It’s a bloodbath.

During this production, last week’s school shooting in Florida has been foremost on the minds of the cast. Some Penn Charter students knew Florida victims personally, having befriended them at a sleepover summer camp last year. Scott Beigel, a counselor at Camp Starlight in northeast Pennsylvania, was one of the teachers killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week.

The day after the shooting, Bender spent the afternoon rehearsal time on an impromptu forum with her cast and crew, letting everyone react to the news.

“It was irresponsible to put them onstage without letting them deal with their feelings about Florida,” she said. “Especially when they act out losing friends to gun violence.”

That forum became a highly emotional two hours of talking, crying, and yelling.

Caroline Chovanes, a senior, was there.

“I’m frustrated. I’m upset. But my main emotion at this point is anger,” she said. “The fact that this has happened so much is ridiculous.”

Chovanes, playing a factory girl and a barricade rebel, has been rehearsing “Les Miserables” since November. It feels different now. In the wake of last week’s school shooting, the stakes have risen.

The songs “Turning,” when women cleaning up after the dead sing, “Did you see them lying side by side?” and “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” which mourns the death of friends (”My friends, forgive me, that I live and you are gone”) seem more real than ever.

Sekia Phllips wants to wield her performance like a hammer, as a means of acting against gun violence. A sophomore who’s considered becoming a doctor, she is now thinking about getting into politics to better effect change. Right now, the musical is her chief means of expression.

“I think ‘Les Miz’ is one of the most important things I can do for myself, for my family and friends, that can best help the whole gun situation,” she said.

Penn Charter’s production of “Les Miserables” will be presented three times this weekend.

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