School Shootings Take Center Stage in Julia Cho's 'Office Hour' at Berkeley Rep
by Jay Barmann
Once again, Berkeley Rep has pulled off something of uncanny timeliness with their production of Office Hour, a new play centering on a potential school shooter by Julia Cho that happens to be opening just two weeks after another deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida. It's a fractured, disturbing, semi-non-linear play in one act, primarily with just two people on stage in one room, the adjunct faculty lounge of an unnamed university. And while it doesn't try to offer explanations or solutions to acts of mass murder on American campuses, Office Hour makes a valiant attempt to explore the anger of an isolated soul, and how a marginalized young man can become a mass murderer.
Cho has, of course, had plenty of inspiration for the piece prior to the Florida tragedy, and she says the original seed was planted after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre -- the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, is Korean-American like Cho, and shares her surname. But it took her years, she says, to find the structure for such a play, using as her window into the topic her own experiences as a writing teacher on college campuses.
The play opens with two fellow English faculty members (Jeremy Kahn and Kerry Warren) trying to warn and counsel Gina (Jackie Chung) about a student they've both had in their classes, who is now in her class. They mince no words in telling her they think he clearly fits the profile of a school shooter, and she needs to try to do something, anything, to get the administration to take some action.
We find out in the next scene that this is Dennis (Daniel Chung), a sullen, silent young man who wears a black hoodie, baseball cap, and dark sunglasses at all times. He arrives for Gina's office hours after she tells him he's required to come for a 20-minute conference, and he manages to remain silent for for most of this initial meeting, only nodding his head when repeatedly prompted to answer her questions. It is also not long before we learn that he does, in fact, have a gun in his backpack.
Cho says she struggled with the play primarily because the subject matter seemed to resist the standard "two-hander" play structure of teacher and student facing off in a room. Quickly, in ways that I won't spoil here, Cho explodes that structure, and Office Hour becomes a kind of thought experiment about all the parallel realities and possibilities that arise when dealing with a "broken" human being like Dennis. He is stuck in the liminal space between adolescence and adulthood, angry at having to follow certain rules like a child, and angry that he hasn't been allowed any of the joys or pleasures of being an adult. He is angry at his parents for their constant disapproval, and angry at a world where he's been made to feel ugly, "other," and generally unwelcome. He likes guns and talks about them, he may be depressed but he is not otherwise mentally ill, and therein lies the same conundrum that authorities in Parkland faced when dealing with the shooter there, and all the red flags he'd been raising for years.
Cho also explores the angle of race and the Korean-American experience specifically, at one point having Gina and Dennis do a role-play in which Gina assumes the aggressive, disapproving voice of Dennis's presumably immigrant mother. (After the 2012 Oikos University shooting in Oakland, which also involved a Korean-American shooter, the New York Times Magazine published a piece about how Korean culture has embedded within it a concept of suppressed, immutable, existential sadness, and the ways it physically can manifest, in rage and self-destruction.) Cho says in an interview with Berkeley Rep that she did not specify in the script that Gina and Dennis must both be played by Asian actors, saying just that they should be "from a similar background [and] both feel a sense of otherness to themselves." But in this production it seems essential that these are both characters trying to pursue a creative existence despite the disapproval of their Asian immigrant parents. (There is also an exchange in which Gina admits that she took her "white"-sounding husband's last name in order to feel less "other" in America.)
The play, directed with great shock and starkness by Lisa Peterson, succeeds in sparking a deeper conversation about how people like Dennis become marginalized, and why an act of mass gun violence has now become the logical next step for such people to prove their power and their worth, and to exact their revenge on a place that rejected them. We are a society that rejects those who don't want to play by certain social rules and games of politeness, repeatedly punishing those who likely already felt punished enough for not fitting in. Despite a somewhat awkward, unsatisfying ending, Office Hour is provocative and smart in exploring this difficult psychological territory without being political or even moralistic. We share our world with many broken people who constantly feel left out, Cho implies, and they are learning from each other, with every nationally publicized atrocity, how to act out and make their mark. And helping them, or stopping them, isn't as simple as getting them a therapist or taking away their guns.